"Mainstream radio in the '60s and '70s put rock next to blues next to soul, and that was popular music. Today, it's sub groups to the nth degree," says Greg Humphreys, the hugely gifted vocalist-guitarist-songwriter behind sweet soul movers Hobex. "I grew up listening to radio like that, and honestly I think most people's music collections are still like that. Most people don't listen to just jam bands or R&B or heavy metal. Most people's tastes span a large swath of genres."
Moving into their 10th year, Hobex epitomize the vintage genre fluidity Humphreys describes.
While their early work stepped out on the same good foot that propelled Muscle Shoals and James Brown, they quickly evolved into a group that injected juicy spirit into any format they tried their hand at. After a four-year recording hiatus, Hobex returns with Enlightened Soul, a 10-track corker that draws from summer-y pop, Philly soul, the world-weary wisdom of Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers, and even '70s California country rock.
"I resent the idea that a band has to be summed up in one or two words," comments Humphreys. "I've always felt like we don't fit any particular mold. We fit a lot of different formats loosely but none are a great fit because we try to be original and unique. That should work in our favor but it doesn't because everything is so formatted and genre-fied today. If you're not playing to a certain audience it's harder to be heard."
Hobex is a descendent of groups like Rare Earth, Eric Burdon and War, and Traci Nelson and Mother Earth — loose, life-loving aggregates that revealed rock's hips and threw grit into soul's smoothness. Everything is played from the heart, which unifies the genre hopping. Like their predecessors, Hobex actively avoids imitation while allowing themselves to be inspired by anything.
"A lot of times I meet up with a little resentment from purists. I'm definitely not a purist," laughs Humphreys. "Hobex is a made-up word, shorthand for a phrase that a bunch of my buddies back in Chapel Hill used to use. It started out as 'I'm all over it like a hobo on a biscuit.' That evolved into 'I'm all over it hobex style.' So, hobex became this code word amongst this group of musicians to infer some enthusiasm or attitude."
"When we started, I'd been in fairly successful alternative rock band Dillon Fence for almost 10 years. When I started a band that was more funk and soul oriented people thought I was nuts but you look now and there's a whole scene inspired by this music that's waiting to bubble over," observes Humphreys.
AC/DC is basically folk chords turned up to 11, G-C-D played with an attitude. And I love it!
Tracks like "Get In Your Way" from 2000's Wisteria or the more recent "Man And A Woman" carry serious echoes of the Staple Singers and Temptations, rare reminders that soul music didn't always mean the homogenized mass produced "urban contemporary" sound of today.
Humphreys says, "Detroit-era Motown is definitely a big influence on me – Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and the Funk Brothers. There's something to be said for putting great songs together with a great band. It wasn't everyone with their hand in the pie telling the band what they should be doing."
Though the band has sometimes had as many as eight players including horns and percussion, these days they're a lean, intuitive quartet. Besides Humphreys, there's Andy Ware (bass), Russ Betenbaugh (keyboards), and Dustin Clifford (drums). Not a note is wasted, and the overall vibe is relaxed confidence, the feel of real pros doing something they love, filling the crevices of each tune with gentle nuances that drift to the surface on repeat spins."
There's so much you can do with a musical group that's also a vocal group. You can create a big sound with just four guys. Just think of what the Beatles did," says Humphreys. "We have consistency now, so over time the arrangements grow and change. We have the freedom to go in different directions and not worry that someone doesn't know the material. Everyone is a great player so with a four-piece there's more room for us to get our ya-yas out. I get to play a lot more guitar without a horn section!"
It's frequently Humphreys' artfully writhing licks that ensnare your ear, tugging you down into their grooves. Humphreys remarks, "A lot of my lead playing is blues guys. I like the Ice Man, Albert Collins. I love Jimi Hendrix, of course. The Stax-Volt thing Steve Cropper did is clearly an influence. I'm an omnivore. I like it all."
One of Enlightened Soul's standouts is "Natural Child," a raunchy 8-minute six-string workout. "It's inspired by my friends the North Mississippi Allstars and Jimbo Mathus," explains Humphreys. "I did some touring backing up Jimbo and have since written a few songs that have that monolithic groove where it starts out on the one and stays on the one. It's like driving down an empty road!"
"I think the big guitar in a lot of rock is like folk music. AC/DC is basically folk chords turned up to 11, G-C-D played with an attitude. And I love it! I'm not saying it's bad but with funk and soul the guitar is more part of the rhythm section. There's less of those big power chords and more of a polyrhythm against what the other instruments are playing."
Hobex spent the past summer backing up Katharine Whalen, the former lead vocalist of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Humphreys was in an early version of Knockdown South that included Stew Cole from the Zippers and Luther and Cody Dickinson of the Allstars.
"These guys are real scholars. I learned Charlie Patton songs, R.L. Burnside stuff. I really learned a lot. I'm not one of these people that holds my record collection up high in a silver cup. So, I really enjoy soaking in knowledge from people on the road. 'Natural Child' is a good example of me doing that since it comes from spending time with Jimbo, Luther and playing music with them. Now that stuff is part of my vocabulary as a musician."
The first lyric on Enlightened Soul is "Can a song change the world? I'm gonna give it a whirl." This is the Hobex philosophy in a nutshell.
"It's a nice summation of what we're trying to do with music. As I get older I'd like to think I'm becoming more enlightened as a person and hopefully my writing reflects that.
"This is the first record I produced, engineered and mixed myself. Instead of giving a studio $5000 I invested in the equipment myself. I'd worked with enough great engineers that I knew what to do. I feel like we made a great record but it took a lot longer than I thought it would. It was a lot of hats to wear."
Enlightened Soul is available digitally, and the band plans to release it on CD in February, on their own Phrex imprint.
Humphreys says, "When I left Dillon Fence I wanted to make a left turn and create something that was uniquely my own. One of the things I'm proudest of is we don't like to make the same record over and over. From a marketing standpoint that's what works and builds a bigger audience. But from a creative standpoint it's not good. I'd rather be setting a trend than following one."