eTown Live Radio Show Taping featuring JJ Grey with special guests Cicada Rhythm
Fri · April 7, 2017
Doors: 6:00 pm / Show: 7:00 pm
$28.00 - $50.00
This event is 18 and over
eTown, the popular radio variety show broadcast weekly across the country and worldwide, travels to Athens, Georgia for a live taping at the Georgia Theatre!
Hosted by radio personalities Nick and Helen Forster, each eTown show features live musical performances by (and ‘up close and personal’ conversation with) several visiting musical artists. The Athens show will include the influential and soulful singer-songwriter/acclaimed touring artist JJ Grey, as well as the Georgia-based modern folk duo Cicada Rhythm.
In addition to the music, eTown will present its signature eChievement Award live on the air to one extraordinary individual who is making a significant, positive difference in the community.
This event will run 2 hours.
Sponsored by WUGA-FM, Visit Athens and Georgia on My Mind.
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 his current Mofro lineup 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, 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 his debut LP Blackwater (2001) a calling-card among roots-rock aficionados. Soon, he was expanding his tours beyond America and the U.K., playing ever-larger clubs and eventually massive festivals, as his fan base grew from a modest group of loyal initiates into something resembling a national coalition.
Grey takes no shortcuts on the homestead, and he certainly takes no shortcuts in his music. While he has metaphorically speaking “drawn blood” making all his albums, his latest effort, Ol’ Glory, found him spending 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’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.
Dave Kirslis had been at a crossroads of his own; the musical projects he was involved in weren’t giving him a “big enough palate” for the way that his songwriting was evolving. Feeling directionless, he’d taken to riding freight trains in search of the quintessential American adventure. One day, rumpled and covered in soot, he jumped off a train near the house of a friend, where he met a wide-eyed and skeptical DeMarcus. “I could tell by her eyebrows that… well I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight.”
Despite the shaky first impression, the two soon found themselves spending a lot of time together. Kirslis had found someone who could understand and respond to his new song writing, and DeMarcus had found someone who could encourage hers and take the role of guitar player, allowing her to return to her preferred instrument. And secretly, in the back of both of their minds, they thought that maybe they’d found something more. Though their musical backgrounds couldn’t be more different – Kirslis taught himself roots music, while DeMarcus had mastered music theory and the nuances of counterpoint at Julliard – they shared a sense of what music should be about.
Four years later, Cicada Rhythm’s self-titled album meanders through folk, rock, Americana, and further afield, but this shared sense of what makes music powerful binds all of the songs together. At the center of their appeal is the mystery of how the interplay between two different sounds – whether it be the spirited finger-picking of guitar dancing over the rising swell of the bass, or their voices layering into sweet harmony – fills the space in between with meaning. In Cicada Rhythm, this space is explored with a fervent intensity that is belied by the effortless elegance of the arrangements.
Perhaps the most striking interplay is the contrasting lyrical styles of the two singer-songwriters that compose this band. DeMarcus’ lyrics are opaque and mysterious, giving shrouded glimpses of the story underneath and letting the listener piece the puzzle together over multiple listens. “Shadows Before You” sets the listener in the eerie landscape of the Southern Gothic, where a troubling story hides behind every darkened window. In “The Keeper,” the upbeat guitar-picking is overlaid by the ominous bowing of the upright and melancholy twang of the pedal steel, giving an unsettling resonance to DeMarcus’ questioning: “Can’t you hear the world crying out for you? Can’t you feel the ground, holding, holding you?”
In contrast, Kirslis’ lyrics are more straightforward to interpret, but deliver a blow to the listener’s sensibilities with their heartfelt sincerity. He is a natural storyteller, and this talent shines through on “Ms. Eloise,” a study in how the careful selection of a few telling scenes can convey the entire emotional impact of a narrative. In “Werewolf,” we instead see a story used as an allegory for an age old internal conflict: “Deny the demons in you, you can fight them nail and tooth/But you’ll just find yourself, fighting off the truth.” “In The Garden” is a playful romp through the surreal landscape of Kirslis’ imagination, filled with striking symbols reminiscent of the evocative power of Bob Dylan’s imagery.
But the contrast does not end at lyrical styles: it extends into the composition and mood of the songs as well. Kirslis’ pieces seem to be permeated by a certain brightness, even when dealing with difficult subject matter. The bewitching harmonies of “Static In My Dreams” pull the listener down a rabbit hole into the unnerving uncertainty that lies beneath even the most resolute convictions. Kirslis delivers a boisterous rock anthem in “Dirty Hound,” managing to make a song of devotion feel as wild and free as any hard rocking hedonistic paeans.
DeMarcus’ songs, on the other hand, possess an organic animism that breathes in the surroundings, a desire reflected in the band’s name. “Walking Late” brings to life a Southern summer romance, its tones imbued with the heavy July air of Athens, GA. “I’m Sorry Charlene,” an ode to her dog, captures the playfulness and confusion of a pet’s perspective but still manages to impart an important truth about dealing with loss.
Cicada Rhythm was recorded with acclaimed producer Drew Vandenberg of Chase Park Transduction, who has previously worked with Drive By Truckers, Deerhunter, of Montreal, Toro y Moi, Kishi Bashi, and many more. They recorded the album entirely using an analog tape recorder, giving the songs a timeless feel. Vandenberg’s influence can also be heard in the haunting outro of “Shadows Before You” and the subtle mixing of “Yellow Suitcase.” Part of the recording process took place in Mt. Zion church in Sparta, Georgia, which, though now unused, was built in 1814. This helped the aura of the Old South, in both its beauty and sorrow, soak its way into the album. In recording, artists often find their artistic intuitions clashing with the technical concerns of the producer. Thankfully, in Vandenberg, Cicada Rhythm found someone whose aesthetic impulses matched their own. “Drew didn’t rush us at all. He always wanted to be true to the art: he hates the sound of fake things.”
This concern with the genuine is the perfect match for Cicada Rhythm. In a time where music is focus-grouped and musicians are more image conscious than politicians, Cicada Rhythm’s authenticity strikes one with the kind of wonder that listeners are always searching for. That is not to say that other bands don’t try and seem authentic – it is precisely because they aren’t trying that Cicada Rhythm’s music has the ability to inspire. This is clearly seen in a song like “Do Not Destroy.” While the song could be seen as a statement about environmentalism and the destruction of rural America, it doesn’t carry the heavy-handed messaging that comes with most political songs. Instead, it strikes one first as a story the artist has a deeply personal connection to: the listener is moved to care about its speaker, and the implications are a natural outgrowth of the emotional connection that is made.
Perhaps Cicada Rhythm remains true out of necessity. Soon after they met, the two musicians began to fall for one another. “We fell in love the weekend we recorded ‘Do Not Destroy,’ at Dave’s mamma’s house.” Just as the meaning of their songs is often found in the spaces between the voices, the truth about a person is often found in the relation with another. For Cicada Rhythm, to be untrue musically would be a sort of infidelity. This gives the love songs on the album an exquisite sweetness without sappiness, a difficult combination to find in romantic songwriting.
They have toured all over the South, as well as in New York and internationally, playing everywhere from prestigious theaters to back-country bars. As their profile continues to rise, they hold on to the homegrown flavor that makes their sound unique. “I remember we played a show and there was a 35- year-old guy who had just gotten out of prison, where he’d been since he was 17. He told us it was the best show he’d seen in 18 years.”
Today, they live in a little old house in the Athens countryside, filled to the brim with dogs, various musical instruments, and obscure vinyl records. It is comforting to think that someday in the future, someone will be able to play this album and capture the spirit of this remote little corner of the world where music and love are created. One can only wonder what creations lie in store.
215 N. Lumpkin St
Athens, GA, 30601