Galactic, JJ Grey & Mofro

Galactic

JJ Grey & Mofro

Sat, February 15, 2014

Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pm

Terminal 5

New York, NY

$30 advance / $40 day of show

This event is all ages

Galactic
Galactic
It's incredible that GALACTIC has never made a carnival album yet, but now it’s here.
To make CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS, the members of GALACTIC (Ben Ellman, harps and horns; Robert Mercurio, bass; Stanton Moore, drums and percussion; Jeff Raines, guitar; Rich Vogel, keyboards) draw on the skills, stamina, and funk they deploy in the all-night party of their annual Lundi Gras show that goes till sunrise and leads sleeplessly into Mardi Gras day.

GALACTIC was formed eighteen years ago in New Orleans, and they cut their teeth playing the biggest party in America: Mardi Gras, when the town shuts down entirely to celebrate. CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS is beyond a party record. It’s a carnival record that evokes the electric atmosphere of a whole city – make that, whole cities – vibrating together all on the same day, from New Orleans all down the hemisphere to the mighty megacarnivals of Brazil. Armed with a slew of carnival-ready guests from high-school students to 72-year-old AL “CARNIVAL TIME” JOHNSON (who remakes his all-time hit), GALACTIC whisks the listener around the neighborhoods to feel the Mardi Gras moment in all its variety of flavors.



CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS begins on a spiritual note, the way Mardi Gras does in the black community of New Orleans. On that morning, the most exciting experience you can have is to be present when the small groups of black men called Mardi Gras Indians perform their sacred street theater. Nobody embodies the spiritual side of Mardi Gras better than the Indians, whose tambourines and chants provide the fundament of New Orleans carnival music. These “gangs,” as they call them, organize around and protect the figure of their chief. The album’s keynote singer, WAR CHIEF JUAN PARDO, is, says Robert Mercurio, “one of the younger Chiefs out there, and he’s become one of the best voices of the new Chiefs. Pardo grew up listening to the singing of the older generation of Big Chiefs, points out Ben Ellman, and “he’s got a little Monk [Boudreaux], a little Bo Dollis, he’s neither uptown nor downtown.”

On “Karate,” says Ellman, the band was aiming to “capture the power” of one of the fundamental musical experiences of Mardi Gras: “a marching band passing by you.” The 40-piece KIPP RENAISSANCE HIGH SCHOOL MARCHING BAND’s director arranged up GALACTIC’s demo, then the band rehearsed it until they had it all memorized. The kids poured their hearts into a solid performance, and, says Mercurio, “I think they were surprised” to hear how good they sounded on the playback.

Musical energy is everywhere at carnival time. “You hear the marching bands go by,” says Mercurio, moving us through a Mardi Gras day, “and then you hear a lot of hiphop.” There hasn’t been a Mardi Gras for twenty years that hasn’t had a banging track by beatmaker / rapper MANNIE FRESH sounding wherever you go. “You can’t talk about New Orleans hiphop without talking about MANNIE FRESH,” says Ellman. His beats have powered literally tens of millions of records, and he and GALACTIC have been talking for years about doing something together. On “Move Fast,” he’s together with multiplatinum gravel-voiced rapper MYSTIKAL, who is, says Ellman, “somebody we’ve wanted to collaborate with forever. It was a coup for us.”

Out in the streets of New Orleans, you might well hear a funky kind of samba, reaching southward toward the other end of the hemispheric carnival zone. There has for the last twenty-five years been a smoking Brazilian drum troupe in town: CASA SAMBA, formed at Mardi Gras in 1986. They’re old friends of GALACTIC’s from their early days at Frenchmen Street’s Café Brasil, and the two groups joined forces for a new version of Carlinhos Brown’s “Magalenha,” previously a hit for Sérgio Mendes.

But the Brazilian influence on CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS goes beyond one song. “When we started this album, we all immersed ourselves in Brazilian music and let it get into our souls,” says Mercurio. The group contributed three Brazilian-flavored instrumentals, including “JuLou,” which riffs on an old Brazilian tune, though the name refers to the brass-funk Krewe of Julu, the “walking krewe” that Galactic members participate in on Mardi Gras morning. After creating the hard-driving track that became “O Côco da Galinha,” they decided it would be right for MOYSÉS MÁRQUEZ, from the São Paulo underground samba scene, who collaborated with them and composed the lyric.

If you were GALACTIC and you were making a carnival album, wouldn’t you want to play “Carnival Time,” the irrepressibly happy 1960 perennial from the legendary Cosimo Matassa studio? Nobody in New Orleans doesn’t know this song. The remake features a new performance in the unmistakable voice of the original singer, AL “CARNIVAL TIME” JOHNSON, who’s still active around town more than fifty years after he first gained Mardi Gras immortality.

The closing instrumental, “Ash Wednesday Sunrise,” evokes the edginess of the post-party feeling. The group writes, “There is the tension you feel on that morning -- one of being worn out from all of the festivities and one of elation that you made it through another year.”

But, as New Orleanians know, there’s always another carnival to look forward to, and GALACTIC will be there, playing till dawn and then going to breakfast before parading.

***
GALACTIC is a collaborative band with a unique format. It’s a stable quintet that plays together with high musicianship. They’ve been together so long they’re telepathic. But though the band hasn’t had a lead singer for years, neither is it purely an instrumental group. GALACTIC is part of a diverse community of musicians, and in their own studio, with Mercurio and Ellman producing, they have the luxury of experimenting. So on their albums, they do something that’s unusual in rock but not so controversial an idea in, say, hiphop: they create something that’s a little like a revue, a virtual show featuring different vocalists (mostly from New Orleans) and instrumental soloists each taking their turn on stage in the GALACTIC sound universe.

Mostly the band creates new material in collaboration with its many guests, though they occasionally rework a classic. Despite the appearance of various platinum names on GALACTIC albums, they especially like to work with artists who are still underground. If you listen to CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS together with the two previous studio albums (YA-KA-MAY and FROM THE CORNER TO THE BLOCK), you’ll hear the most complete cross-section of what’s happening in contemporary New Orleans anywhere – all of it tight and radio-ready.

Despite the electronics and studio technology, GALACTIC’s albums are very much band records. Mercurio explained the GALACTIC process, which starts out with the beat: “The way we write music,” he says, “we come up with a demo, or a basic track, and then we collectively decide how we’re gonna finish it.” The result is a hard-grooving sequence of tight beats across a range of styles that glides from one surprise to the next.

What pulls all the diverse artists on CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS together into a coherent album is that one way or another, it’s all funk. GALACTIC is, always was, and always will be a funk band. Whatever genre of music anyone in New Orleans is doing, from Mardi Gras Indians to rock bands to hardcore rappers, it’s all funk at the bottom, because funk is the common musical language, the lingua franca of New Orleans music. Even zydeco can be funky -- and if you don’t believe it, check out “Voyage Ton Flag,” the album’s evocation of Cajun Mardi Gras, in which Mamou Playboy STEVE RILEY meets up with a sampled Clifton Chenier inside the GALACTIC funk machine.
JJ Grey & Mofro
JJ Grey & Mofro
From the days of playing greasy local juke joints to headlining major festivals, JJ Grey remains an unfettered, blissful performer, singing like a blue-collar angel over the bone-deep grooves of his compositions. His presence before an audience is something startling and immediate, at times a funk rave-up, other times a sort of mass absolution for the mortal weaknesses that make him and his audience human. When you see JJ Grey and his band Mofro live—and you truly, absolutely must—the man is fearless.

Onstage, Grey delivers his songs with compassion and a relentless honesty, but perhaps not until Ol’ Glory has a studio record captured the fierceness and intimacy that defines a Grey live performance. “I wanted that crucial lived-in feel,” Grey says of Ol’ Glory, and here he hits his mark. On the new album, Grey and the current Mofro lineup (Anthony Cole on drums; Andrew Trube on guitar; Anthony Farrell on organ; Todd Smallie on bass; Dennis Marion on trumpet; Jeff Dazey on saxophone) offer grace and groove in equal measure, with an easygoing quality to the production that makes those beautiful muscular drum-breaks sound as though the band has set up in your living room.

Despite a redoubtable stage presence, Grey does get performance anxiety— specifically, when he's suspended 50 feet above the soil of his pecan grove, clearing
moss from the upper trees.

“The tops of the trees are even worse,” he laughs, “say closer to 70, maybe even 80 feet. I'm not phobic about heights, but I don't think anyone's crazy about getting up in a bucket and swinging all around. I wanted to fertilize this year but didn't get a chance.

This February I will, about two tons—to feed the trees.”

When he isn't touring with Mofro, Grey exerts his prodigious energies on the family land, a former chicken-farm that was run by his maternal grandmother and grandfather. The farm boasts a recording studio, a warehouse that doubles as Grey's gym, an open-air barn, and of course those 50-odd pecan trees that occasionally require Grey to go airborne with his sprayer.

For devoted listeners, there is something fitting, even affirmative in Grey's commitment to the land of his north Florida home. The farms and eddying swamps of his youth are as much a part of Grey's music as the Louisiana swamp-blues tradition, or the singer's collection of old Stax records.

As a boy, Grey was drawn to country-rockers, including Jerry Reed, and to Otis Redding and the other luminaries of Memphis soul; Run-D.M.C., meanwhile, played
on repeat in the parking lot of his high school (note the hip-hop inflections on “A Night to Remember”). Merging these traditions, and working with a blue-collar ethic that brooked no bullshit, Grey began touring as Mofro in the late '90s, with backbeats that crossed Steve Cropper with George Clinton and a lyrical directness that made the group's debut LP Blackwater (2001) a calling-card among roots-rock aficionados.

Soon, the group was expanding its tours beyond America and the U.K., playing everlarger clubs and eventually massive festivals, as Mofro's fan base grew from a modest group of loyal initiates into something resembling a national coalition. Grey's manager describes the musician as “a preacher who never found the church.” These concerts, perhaps, are the next best thing.

Grey takes no shortcuts on the homestead, and he certainly takes no shortcuts in his
music. While he has a few near-perfect albums under his belt—Country Ghetto and
Orange Blossoms are just masterpieces—on his new album, Ol’ Glory, he spent more time than ever working over the new material. A hip-shooting, off-the-cuff performer (often his first vocal takes end up pleasing him best), Grey was able to stretch his legs a bit while constructing the lyrics and vocal lines to Ol’ Glory.

“I would visit it much more often in my mind, visit it more often on the guitar in my house,” Grey says. “I like an album to have a balance, like a novel or like a film. A triumph, a dark brooding moment, or a moment of peace—that's the only thing I
consistently try to achieve with a record.”

Grey has been living this balance throughout his career, and Ol’ Glory is a beautifully
paced little film. On “The Island,” Grey sounds like Coleridge on a happy day: “All
beneath the canopy / of ageless oaks whose secrets keep / Forever in her beauty /
This island is my home.” “A Night to Remember” finds the singer in first-rate swagger:

“I flipped up my collar ah man / I went ahead and put on my best James Dean / and
you'd a thought I was Clark Gable squinting through that smoke.” And “Turn Loose”
has Grey in fast-rhyme mode in keeping with the song's title: “You work a stride /
curbside thumbing a ride / on Lane Avenue / While your kids be on their knees /
praying Jesus please.” From the profane to the sacred, the sly to the sublime, Grey
feels out his range as a songwriter with ever-greater assurance.

The mood and drive of Ol’ Glory are testament to this achievement. The album ranks
with Grey and Mofro's very best work; among other things, the secret spirituality of his
music is perhaps more accessible here than ever before. On “Everything Is a Song,”
he sings of “the joy with no opposite,” a sacred state that Grey describes to me:
“It can happen to anybody: you sit still and you feel things tingling around you,
everything's alive around you, and in that a smile comes on your face involuntarily,
and in that I felt no opposite.

It has no part of the play of good and bad or of comedy or tragedy. I know it’s just a
play on words but it feels like more than just being happy because you got what you
wanted — this is a joy. A joy that doesn’t get involved one way or the next; it just is.”
Grey's most treasured albums include Otis Redding's In Person at the Whisky a Go
Go and Jerry Reed's greatest hits, and the singer once told me that he grew up
“wanting to be Jerry Reed but with less of a country, more of a soul thing.” With Ol’
Glory, Grey does his idols proud. It's a country record where the stories are all part of
one great mystery; it's a blues record with one foot in the church; it's a Memphis soul
record that takes place in the country.

In short, Ol’ Glory is that most singular thing, a record by JJ Grey—the north Florida
sage and soul-bent swamp rocker.
Venue Information:
Terminal 5
610 W 56th St
New York, NY, 10019
http://www.terminal5nyc.com/