By Adam Waldman
Blacktop Mojo was featured on Hard Rock Daddy for the first time in 2015. Since that time, I have become friends with frontman Matt James, but never got the chance to see the band until recently. When we spoke four years ago, there was no swagger, only a bit of nervous apprehension from James. Understandable given that it was his first interview ever. Back then, Blacktop Mojo was just a local band from a small town in East Texas. Still, I sensed something special from the first listen.
Living pretty far from most venues, it usually requires a fairly lengthy trip to go and see bands these days, especially those at the beginning of their career. I could have gone to see them a little bit closer to home during the week of the show at the Woodbury Brewing Company in Connecticut, but it probably wouldn’t have given me much opportunity to meet my friend in person for the first time. So I chose to make it an overnight trip instead and travel over two hours to the show. We agreed to meet up in the early evening. What I didn’t realize was that it would be at the VIP party that the band was hosting on the back patio of the brewery. Or that they would be performing acoustic songs for their fans. It was an added bonus to get to hear them perform unplugged, but even more so to see the mutual admiration between them and the fans.
I sat down at the picnic table just in front of James, and guitarists Ryan Kiefer and Chuck Wepfer. No longer the uneasy newbie who seemed to be an obvious introvert, James commanded the room like a seasoned pro, encouraging all of the fans to come closer to the action. This wasn’t your typical meet and greet where you get an autograph, take a picture and move on your way after a brief conversation. It felt more like being invited to a private backyard event hosted by Blacktop Mojo. In a sense, it was, albeit not in someone’s actual backyard.
The acoustic set consisted of just a few songs that came at the request of those in attendance. I requested, “In Color,” a cover a Jamey Johnson song that I only knew because of Blacktop Mojo. I live inside a rock bubble that rarely gets permeated by country music or any other genre for that matter. Blacktop Mojo made me fall in love with “In Color” a few years back. Hearing an up-close-and-personal, live acoustic version made me love it even more.
After playing a few songs, the band took questions from the fans. The only restrictions being the imagination of those in attendance. Fans were encouraged to ask any question that they could think of, which seemed like an invitation for a little bit of mischief, but the questions were mostly what you would expect. Still, the willingness to open up about anything was refreshing. That’s the thing about Blacktop Mojo…they treat everyone like a friend. No pretense. No attitude. Just genuine gratitude that makes you root for them even more.
When I wasn’t talking to the members of the band, I sat and observed the interaction with the fans, and had some conversations with many of them. It turns out that a number of other people drove a pretty fair distance on a Sunday night to see the band perform. That’s more telling than any radio play, much of which goes to the artists with the biggest budgets. This kind of loyalty goes much deeper than any song. Blacktop Mojo fans are invested in seeing this band succeed. It was clear that they built some very strong bonds with fans on the Shiprocked cruise.
A number of VIP attendees insisted upon buying drinks for the band both before and after the show. One woman talked about how their lyrics got her through some tough times, tearing up as she shared what they mean to her. The hugs that followed were genuine on both parts. You cannot fake the kind of sincere connection that exists between Blacktop Mojo and their fans.
As the preshow party wrapped up, everyone meandered into the brewery to check out Lullwater. This was not your typical opening performance. It was strong, loud, powerful, and engaging. Unfortunately, their set was cut short. Not by any kind of time restriction, but a power outage towards the end of their set. Because there were still a few lights on in the brewery, we all assumed that they blew a circuit. They did not. It was an outage in the general area. The lights were powered by a generator, but it wasn’t nearly powerful enough to do a plugged-in show.
Many young bands would have probably been panic-stricken by the lack of power. After all, this was no hometown gig that can happen anytime. This was a singular opportunity for many Blacktop Mojo fans, many of whom drove a long way to be at the show. Like true professionals, the band took things in stride, and made plans to play an acoustic show by a campfire on the back patio.
As everyone circled around them, one of the members matter-of-factly stated…“this ain’t a concert anymore, it’s a party!”
The crowd loved it. Not one complaint about the power. No mass confusion dealing with the darkness or the unexpected change of plans. Just like a bunch of lifelong friends, we all hung out at the campfire, ready to be regaled by Blacktop Mojo’s unplugged set. After playing “Where The Wind Blows,” the power was restored. The concert was back on, but there would be a little bit of prep time necessary for the band. No problem at all for James, who sent the rest of the members in while he kept the campfire session going.
With nothing more than an acoustic guitar, an ungodly set of lungs, and an enthusiastic crowd, James belted out a brilliant rendition of “No Rain” by Blind Melon. Certainly not your typical campfire song, but then again, there is nothing typical about James or the rest of Blacktop Mojo. The crowd sang along in unison. It was a spontaneous, magical moment that seemed like it couldn’t be topped, but it was later on in the show.
This cool Sunday crowd was ready to go with the flow regardless of what happened. In retrospect, it was a blessing that the power came back on. Blacktop Mojo is as good as they come when they play acoustically, but the energy that they create at full force is something to behold.
They are not bonded by blood, but you’d never know it when you experience their incredible chemistry. At the very least, you would think that they all grew up together in the small town of Palestine, TX, but they didn’t. This band of brothers is bonded by mutual admiration for each other, a shared vision, and dedication to making their rock and roll dreams come true.
Based on the high-octane performance, you would think that the band was well rested. They were not. Aside from having to overcome the disruption of a power outage, the show at Woodbury Brewing Company was the last of six consecutive nights leaving it all on the stage.
The venue may have been modest, but the music was arena worthy. It was as if Blacktop Mojo channeled the spirit of the legends that came before them to deliver an unforgettable performance…
The dark heaviness of Black Sabbath. The haunting mystique of Led Zeppelin. The soaring melodic grunge of Soundgarden. The funky groove of Red Hot Chili Peppers in their heyday. The soulful blues of Stevie Ray Vaughn. The Southern Rock charisma of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
To say that Blacktop Mojo is versatile would be a massive understatement. They are in the rarified air of bands that can blend multiple subgenres and influences into one cohesive sound. This kind of talent is to be revered. In a rock world filled with bands chasing a radio sound, Blacktop Mojo is true to themselves and their influences. Their approach may not always result in the glamor of having a song blow up on radio, but from my vantage point, it’s better. Based on the adoration of the fans before, during, and after the show, I’d say that Blacktop Mojo is just a lucky break away from being a rock and roll juggernaut.
I expected some heavy moments, but I never would have imagined the hair-swinging, headbanging energy of Metallica’s early thrash days. Nor would I have expected the guitar-driven showmanship of classic Judas Priest. The dual guitar assault of the understated Kiefer and metallic Wepfer (playing a Flying V) were enhanced by the sinister, Cheshire catlike presence of bassist Catt Murtis slinking around the stage. And of course, Nathan Gillis, the engine powering the freight train that is Blacktop Mojo.
The unsung hero of Blacktop Mojo is silence, a dynamic that is lost on many bands fueled by adrenaline coursing through their veins. You would think that hearing the same song twice in one evening would feel redundant, but it didn’t. “Where The Wind Blows” at full volume took on an entirely different vibe. During the intense moments, it felt like being hit with a sledgehammer. That’s what made the crisp, precision silent breaks so powerful. The silence created the type of tension that puts you on the edge of your seat while watching a thriller movie. This kind of dynamic is uncommon, just like the band themselves who transition between metal, funk, soul, blues and more with ease.
As I watched James own the stage, I was amazed that this was the same person who sounded nervous in a phone interview. Big and muscular, wearing a form-fitting button down shirt that made him look like a Hawaiian Hulk, James showcased surprisingly nimble moves like Jagger. His voice, as powerful as his presence, filled the room with and without the microphone.
In a moment that will not soon be forgotten by anyone in attendance, James and Murtis walked through the crowd with acoustic guitars and sat upon the bar. There was no campfire inside, but the crowd circled them as if there was. In unison with the entire audience, the duo performed an unplugged version of “In The Air Tonight.” A spontaneous moment that couldn’t have been predicted was met with the same results as a well-rehearsed flash mob. It was a beautiful moment of harmony and bonding as we all became part of the show, both young and old. Really young…
Perhaps the most impressive part of “In The Air Tonight” was a 9-year old singing every word of the song as if he was a card carrying member of The MTV Generation. The smile across his face lit up the room. It only grew brighter when he was given fist bumps and picks from the band. It turned out that this was his first concert ever. I kind of feel bad for the kid. It’s probably all downhill from here. Not just because of the intimate setting of seeing one of his favorite bands, but getting the chance to hang out with them after the show.
From the heavy hitting songs, to the sweet harmony of the band’s latest single (“Can’t Sleep”), to stirring ballads like “Prodigal,” to homages to bands like Soundgarden and Led Zeppelin, Blacktop Mojo hit all the right notes. It was a show that you just didn’t want to end. Even though they must have been exhausted, you got the feeling that the band didn’t want the night to end either. They hung out in the parking lot after the show for well over an hour. In between soaking up heaping praise from appreciative fans, they took every picture that anyone wanted to take. They signed every autograph that anyone asked for. Their gratitude towards the fans was as genuine as the band themselves.
The last leg of the current tour wraps up tonight in Palestine, TX on James’ birthday. Since moving from Texas in 2011 (after a brief stay), I haven’t looked back. Given the opportunity, I would have gladly been back in Texas tonight for this celebratory moment.
If Blacktop Mojo comes anywhere close to your town, do whatever you can to experience these rising stars. Come early. Stay late. You will not be disappointed!