Swamp music 

Florida's Mofro get down and dirty

I never saw much in the state of Florida. Every visit I have taken to the Sunshine State, I have been bombarded with the sight of strip malls, golf courses and old people driving Cadillacs with a mentality that seemed to be, as near as I could tell, “I don’t have much time left, so get the hell out of my way or else we’re getting in an accident.” Couple all this with a 2000 presidential election in which Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush acted questionably at best—and treasonously at worse—and it’s fair to say that my opinion of America’s southeastern peninsula was lower than I could go in my best round of limbo. The “Wang of America,” indeed.

But gross generalizations usually come back to bite you in the keister, and just when I had essentially written off all things Floridian, along comes Mofro. Hailing from the bayous of Cross Creek, Mofro has captured the sound and feel of the swamps, palmettos and rattlesnakes that are apparently still down there, but just harder to find behind all the strip malls. In a song dedicated to their home state, Mofro sing, “They haven’t seen Florida through my eyes.” No, I haven’t, but I’m beginning to wish I had.

Mofro is raw swamp music, the kind of back-porch romp that is occasionally reminiscent of James Brown and even the J. Geils Band (only one of whom was from the South, but both of whom could make you feel like a badass, as the best southern rock tends to do). And like J. Geils, Mofro’s sound lends itself well to the oft-attempted (but seldom successful) call and response. You know—when a band is trying to get the crowd into it and they yell out something like, “Let me hear you say ‘Hell yeah.’” Usually, only one or two actually say “Hell yeah.” With Mofro, you’ll respond whether you like it or not. It’s a peculiar symptom of truly funky music: First you lose control of your body, and then you start yelling out crazy things. Curtis Mayfield was the pioneer of this. If you listen to an old Mayfield tape, you’ll notice the music is so moving that Curtis could get his audience to say, “Go on, brotha, preach on about proper dental hygiene with your bad self.” Not that Mayfield sang about dental hygiene. But the point is that he could have. Mofro has a similar thing working for them. The band combines bass lines that will strike you deep in your soul, guitar licks that scratch away on top of that bass, potent drumming and a harmonica creeping up from behind to remind you that you’re still not dancing hard enough. Oh yeah, and did I mention Dobro and keys? ‘Cause they got those, too. The piano adds a nice touch of soul, conjuring an Aretha Franklin “Think” verbosity.

Assuming that their latest CD, Backwater, is an accurate representation of Mofro, then perhaps it might help if we used this analogy: You know that commercial they showed a whole bunch during the Super Bowl where Garth Brooks is jamming with a gang of old guys and young girls on the porch of some beat-up old country store? Okay. Take everything about that, de-commercialize it, take out all the beautiful Hollywood actors and replace them with smiling, toothless men in fishing gear, add some mosquitoes to swat at, and now replace Garth Brooks and the backing band with some Florida boys looking to have a good time. And throw in some Kool-Aid-stained kids attempting to sell lemonade and sugar cookies between dance contests. And replace the country sound of the band with some kickass southern-fried funk.

On second thought, I guess this isn’t much of an analogy at all, except for the fact that there’s still a porch involved.

Anyway, Mofro actually offers quite a broad palette, though southern funk is their mainstay. But they also relax on some Stevie Wonder-influenced numbers. One such, “Santa Claus, True Love and Freedom,” will allow you a break to wipe the sweat from your forehead while at the same time hitting you up with as original a contemporary blues number as you’re likely to hear. And there’s even a pop moment here and there, as well—a song like the infinitely catchy “Brighter Days” could sneak these guys through the back door onto mainstream radio. Still, it’s the muddy, nitty-gritty funk tunes that will likely stick in your head. And if they don’t stick, well, bring a tape recorder. Mofro encourages its audience to tape any and all of the band’s shows. What a deal. Who said nothing good ever came out of Florida?

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