by Jason Earle
J.J. Grey and Mofro is one of my all-time favorite live bands. The first time I saw them, circa 2004, they played with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, back when the band was just known as Mofro. The symphony players donned camouflage hats to mirror their “conductor” that night, J.J. Grey and his band’s southern swampy sound.
Thus began over a decade long love affair with Jacksonville’s Mofro. A couple shows, a few dozen beers, and a year or two later, I saw Mofro at what used to be called Common Grounds in Gainesville, FL. Bands like Avail and Against Me! used to pack the place in the 1990s when it was in some other incarnation. It’s a big room that feels like a mini high school cafetorium. The opener that night was a band called the Legendary JC’s.
My practice is to watch the opener whenever possible. That’s how I learned about Joe Pug, Matthew Fowler, and countless other musicians I love. The Legendary JC’s were unfamiliar to me but anyone hitched to J.J. Grey and Mofro was worth a listen. The JC’s is a band fronted by Central Florida musical legend Eugene Snowden.
Eugene Snowden is a force of fucking nature, now, fifteen years later. A decade and a half ago he was a sexual dynamo who wailed on the microphone, made love to it, then abandoned its embrace to leap off the stage into a split on the dance floor. That’s not a hyperbolic metaphor. He literally did all of the above as an opening act. Never before or since have I seen someone upstage J.J. Grey. Eugene did it that night.
Opening the Portal
The Marinade has opened a lot of creative doors for me. For my partner in life. For my friends. My family. The Marinade is a portal. A way that things I never thought possible could come true. I’ve interviewed and become buddies with creative heroes. I’ve seen my favorite bands from just feet away.
Most importantly I have learned that the voices, both internal and external, telling you your art is silly or unimportant are wrong.
If ten people listen to the show and think it matters, or they learn something, then damnit it matters. But, if no one listens, it still matters. It matters for all the cliche reasons but also because we are nothing without art.
The show J.J. and his band played with the symphony might as well have been tomorrow it’s so fresh. Eugene’s split does not happen anymore but that does not matter. It resides in my memory and every time he does some bat shit wild thing on stage now, I am transported to that moment when I was creatively stifled but there were people like Eugene Snowden and J.J. Grey who let me escape to a place where I could not otherwise travel. I could not do what they were doing but no matters of the ego would survive that moment.
Uncovering the Well
The song you hear playing in the background of The Marinade intro is by Explosions in the Sky. It’s called “First Breath After Coma.” You may not have noticed it the first twenty-plus times you heard the intro, but now it’ll be dialed in. The song is an ear worm of the best sort.
That intro was recorded on a whim. My partner Kris had just gifted me mic stands, a present that ranks among my favorite to this day. She put a ton of thought into what I might need while recording intros and outros, or while having people over for interviews.
We were hanging out late one night and I enthusiastically asked her to play around with our new recording setup. On her worst day, Kris is my favorite singer. Her singing blends pain with hope and ties the two in a bow of universal class. That’s how I fell in love with her. All of that.
She has always supported my creative endeavors, but those mic stands sent a message that she was all in on my creative pursuits. And, her subsequent renderings of my logo concepts proved to me that I was on to something with The Marinade. If Kris likes it, or at least supports it, then I have a chance.
Years of writing, interviewing, and recording later, The Marinade reached a place where we not only had our feature episodes, but a few tendrils to manicure as well. One of those vines is our website exclusive episodes. Episode 4 of that series is with the incredible songwriter Amy McCarley.
A Push From New Friends
Interviews are almost never bad. I’m okay at this by now. But, some are amazing. Sometimes you hit a flow of sorts. My website exclusive episode with Amy McCarley was one of those moments. During our conversation, I mentioned that I had some songs written but they had not been consumed by anyone other than me and a few select girlfriends over the years. To which she basically replied, tighten up and put yourself out there.
Barley and Vine Biergarten is my home base. A local bar where everyone knows all your shit - the good and the not-so-good - and they want you to succeed. A week after my conversation with Amy, I showed up to play some original songs only to find that open mic was cancelled. I told Amy what happened and she said not to give up, to give it another go in a week or so. The same thing happened to her the first time she tried to play an open mic.
Two weeks later, I was preparing to emcee the Rockin’ Robinson music festival, an easy excuse not to face my anxiety about playing. It’s not that I don’t think my songs are any good, or that I don’t like my voice. It’s that I feel like a poseur. I can’t help comparing myself to these brilliant musicians I work with, a standard of which I fall well short.
Meanwhile, my episode with Amy went live and I sent her the links. In her response to my note, she asked about whether I had gotten up to play! Persistently, lovingly, asking if I faced my anxieties and got up there.
It was good, tough medicine. I showed up again at the end of a really labor-intensive week, with all the excuse in the world to skip out again.
The place is packed but the sandwich board out front says the bar is closed for a private party, and will reopen at 8:00. It is 7:51. I am hungry, haven’t eaten since noon. I need to go for a run. There is time for both. I could go for a quick run and grab a snack. No, if I leave now I will probably conveniently run out of time and not be able to play. I could just scrap the whole thing for now. The universe seems to be conspiring against me and this open mic will always be here. If not this one, another.
No, today has to be the day. I will email Amy and tell her I am thinking about backing down but am going to get up there and play this time. That will give me some accountability.
The room comes together quickly. There is still an hour till open mic is slated to begin. And, this being rock n’ roll, who knows what time it will actually start. Philly runs the open mic and knows I want to go up early so he puts me first on the list. I decide one beer would be good. No more than one.
Several friends are here. I guess they were watching some kind of documentary about the racial history of Orlando. That’s good. My first song is about racial injustice. I feel a little better about what is going to happen. It is comforting to see so many buddies in attendance. So is Eugene Snowden.
My name is called. I take the stage to some surprised looks on the faces of people who have known me for years and had no idea I played or sang. I fumble with my guitar. We finally get it figured out.
I’ve written a ton of tunes, played a few of them for people, and mostly filtered the ones that are universally appreciated by captive, sympathetic audiences. Again, I think art is mostly about the artist’s need to express something. How it is received should not be overly fretted. But, if you don’t like something then it probably should not go out in the world.
I’ve got one tune I know is good, one that is an acquired taste, and an a cappella cover I know I can crush. I am going to play them in that order - the powerful tune I love, the easier one I like, and then see whether the crowd is ready for the a cappella curveball.
The first song is called Brenton Butler. It’s a true story about a black teenage boy who was wrongly accused of murder in Jacksonville circa 2000. It’s a tough song to hear and sing but the crowd is ready for it and so am I. The whole place is cheering. I damn near get a standing ovation and Eugene Snowden of Legendary JCs fame, he who upstaged JJ Grey one night in Gainesville fifteen years ago is cheering as loud as anyone.
So fired up is he, as I stand here giddily grinning, that Eugene puts his name on the list to play next. I do my other two songs, finishing off with the Saul Williams cover as Eugene leads the room in a clap-along, and take my place among friends to watch Eugene Snowden follow me on stage.
That is the tale of how I opened for Eugene Snowden.