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Salt of the Earth

Hobex and Mofro sustain Southern soul tradition

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For Phil Walden, In Memoriam (1940-2006)

Soulife is what NC's Hobex and Florida's Mofro have chosen. Both groups contribute a vital chapter to the postwar tradition of "Southern" soul -- rather than merely reviving it. And both will testify in the QC this weekend at the Visulite.

Past its 1,000-show mark, Hobex -- a soul/funk/rock quartet based in Hillsborough -- is touring in celebration of the band's 10th anniversary. A slew of regional shows are scheduled for spring and early summer, from a recent Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival appearance in Silk Hope to a mid-May two-night stand at the Green Parrot in Key West, FL. Along the stops, Hobex will redefine the illusory soul power nightly.

Our recent Southeastern Music Issue identified contemporary strains of soul afoot in the region, including the neo-chitlin circuit style and Florida swamp-hop. The exercise made clear that the definition of soul, despite the genre's roughly 40-year existence, remains opaque. One thing is certain: Southern soul and soul should be synonymous. For all the glories Northern black music yielded in Detroit, Philly and Chicago in the '50s and '60s, the music was essentially pop with the occasional Southern assist. Lest we forget: Detroit's first daughter, Aretha Franklin, did not find success laboring for Columbia Records in New York but did prosper after she moved to Atlantic Records and recorded at Alabama's Fame Studios.

One suspects that when most people consider soul as an entity -- if they consider it at all -- they think of those foremost Dixie sons Otis Redding and the Rev. Al Green. And then there's the blue-eyed soul tradition -- largely spawned by '50s rockers like Elvis Presley and Dion DiMucci -- that Mofro and Hobex descend from.

It's no surprise, then, that the current crop of the best soul, R&B and rock practitioners should still hail from or be coalescing in groups in the Southland. But Atlanta's justly famed neo-soul scene tends to produce artists pursuing a hybrid, jazzy style of soul smoothed out on the pop tip; Charlotte native Anthony Hamilton's grittier sound is a key departure in this category. And so is Mofro's approach, overlapping with swamp-hop. The band's signature brand of rural funk and oral tradition is sure to be reflected on its third studio album, which the band began recording in March.

Mofro's central duo -- John "J.J." Grey (vocals, guitar, piano, mouth harp) and Daryl Hance (guitar) -- hails from Florida's swampy, rural interior, although now the duo is based out of the northeastern coastal strip of the state that nurtured the Allmans and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Lacking the supposed radio-ready appeal of Dirty South hip-hop or the rockist, indie cred of groups like Alabama's Drive-By Truckers, the swamp-funkateers of Mofro received a Jam Nation embrace by default. It's curious that Mofro's market should be primarily jammy audiences since some of the group's best work is interchangeable with that of the neo chitlin' circuit's leading lights. A perplexing St. Louis show last year saw Mofro skewing more toward straight rock, seeming to channel Creedence Clearwater Revival (curious when Grey is already everything young John Fogerty aspired to be) and to leach some of its earlier down-home blues groove. Mofro is at its best honing its approach to funk, Malaco R&B, Caribbean influences and occasional scat raps.

Mofro's gift for hybridity has elevated the band far above the jammy fray. That, and the duo's de facto environmentalist stance, passionately highlighted throughout its sophomore effort, Lochloosa. The chief reason Grey's brand of soul is so pure and legitimate -- aside from his childhood love of Stevie Wonder, the Isley Brothers and so forth -- is that his ancestors maintained and imparted to him a reverence for land and roots. One hopes Mofro's next CD heeds the natural power of the band's swampy innervisions.

Greg Humphreys of Hobex -- aka "the hardest workin' soul band in the land" -- seems to have achieved sonic balance early on. His band's music is what soft rock ought to be -- like a looser Steely Dan. And it's dashed with just enough twang to qualify as the latest iteration of Cosmic American music. Humphreys and his revolving Hobex lineup got into the pocket and stayed there, simply refining their rich brand of organ-drenched soul fusion.

Being a novice, I find the aesthetic of such great Hobex records as U Ready, Man? and Back in the 90s reminiscent of War's early work. Comparisons of singer-guitarist Humphreys to Gregg Allman and Curtis Mayfield are self-evident; less obvious is how his phrasing recalls mellow Chaka Khan. He also appears to have caught acid jazz vibes from the late-1980s. (It's unsurprising that immediately upon hearing "Maybe It's Me," my husband asked if I was playing British rock & soul cult hero Lewis Taylor).

In Hobex' recordings, Humphreys is like an alien time lord (á la Doctor Who) who embodies tomorrow's altered states today, while also reaching backward into back-porch nostalgia and reflection. This strange impression is cemented by the unbearably beautiful "So Far Away" from U Ready, Man? With its stacked descending guitar figures, soul-cleansing falsetto cries, filtered sunlight and sense of escape to the hidden America, the song is simultaneously alt-psychedelia, space rock and country gospel.

The majority of Humphreys' songs possess the sultry shimmer of Stax, whether horns figure in the arrangements or soul folk twang. And a melancholy vibe endemic to this region serves as counterpoint to portions of driving R&B energy and funk. Hobex' forthcoming Enlightened Soul (hear selections at myspace.com/hobex) contains many grace notes on songs like "Free the Music" and "Man and a Woman."

Southern soul is still replete with space, with worlds of meaning emanating from what isn't played. Never fear, though: For all the inchoate Dixie mysticism underpinning their sound, both Hobex and Mofro will bring the hot licks to town.

Mofro plays Visulite May 5th, at 10pm. Tickets: $12 adv., $14 DOS. Hobex comes to Visulite May 6th, at 10pm. Tickets: $8 adv., $10 DOS. www.visulite.com.

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