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The best kept secret in music


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U Ready, Man? (Tone Cool) 2003


Feeling a bit camera shy




Actually, there are second acts in American life. Greg Humphreys is having a grand old time performing his.

Formerly the frontman for Carolina could-have-been popsters Dillon Fence, Humphreys is the primary creative force behind Hobex, a multi-headed, multi-genre outfit whose excursions into funk, soul, blues, jazz, and R&B are both thrillingly progressive and shockingly authentic. Since 1996, the band has delighted in-the-know fans around the South and Mid-Atlantic with two-and-a-half CDs and some 200 gigs a year. “In their loping bass lines, chicken scratch guitar lines and high soaring harmonies you can hear the hit-making instincts of Motown, the loose, raw energy of Stax and the grab-bag influences – gospel, pop blues, rock – of Sly Stone and P-Funk,” the Memphis Flyer raved. Now, with the Tone-Cool release of Hobex’s third album, U READY MAN?, the grooves are even sweeter and the party’s getting hotter.

A true son of the South, Humphreys was raised in Winston-Salem by his artist mother and a Dad who just loved music. “It was one of his passions” Humphreys says. “My great memories of growing up are sitting around singing songs with him. He used to take us to bluegrass weekends, and he had a big record collection: everything from Ray Charles, Guy Clark and Elvis to Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.”

Humphreys attended R.J. Reynolds High School, which counted among its alumni not only Grand Ole Opry stalwart George Hamilton IV, but members of seminal power-pop garage bands Let’s Active and the dBs. Dillon Fence, which Humphreys formed in 1987 at the University of North Carolina, had a similarly British Invasion-seasoned sound, preceding Chapel Hill’s “indie-rock explosion” by a year or two. Among the band’s admirers were Ryan Adams, Tift Merritt, Edwin McCain, the Black Crowes, Seven Mary Three and, most notoriously, Hootie and the Blowfish, whose smash hit “I Only Want to Be With You” was a partial cop of Humphreys’ song “Sad Inheritance” (hence the lyrical namecheck, “put on a little Dylan, sitting on a fence”).

Dillon Fence made three records for Mammoth and Atlantic, allowing Humphreys to develop as a songwriter and player while enduring a typically lopsided ratio of frustration to success. By 1995, he was ready to move on. “I wanted to do something new, something a little less pigeonholed,” he says. “Musical tastes change and grow. You want to make the music you feel called to make.” Humphreys had always been a funk and soul fan -- as a teen, he took guitar lessons from a former Righteous Brothers sideman. To begin anew, he went back to the old: Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown.

“Those artists inspired me because they did a pop thing up unto a certain point, then they took their music further,” Humphreys says. “They wanted to make great albums that made people think, as well as making them dance and have a good time.”

Hobex – the name is slang for “enjoy the moment,” derived from the expression “like a hobo on a ham sandwich” -- began as a trio in 1996, with Steve Hill behind the drums and Andy Ware, who’d joined Dillon Fence around the end, on bass. “An old friend, an excellent player, a great person,” Humphreys says of Ware. “He and I have been able to do a lot together.” Hill retired from music in 2001 because of health problems, and was replaced by Dustin Clifford, late of an improvisational, hip-hop influenced band called the X-periment. “He’s added energy and enthusiasm to the project, a funkier, jazzier feel,” Humphreys says.

Hobex made its D.I.Y. debut with The Payback EP in ’96, then the full-length Back in the ‘90s in 1998. When Slash/London re-released it a year later, critic Ann Powers made it the New York Times’ Album of the Week, comparing Humphreys to Alex Chilton and Al Green. But such praise meant nothing in the boardroom of an international media conglomerate: Hobex parted ways with London after the Vivendi/Universal merger, returning to its own Phrex imprint for 2000’s Wisteria.

That record was split between full-band electric tracks and an acoustic session featuring Humphreys, Ware and Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Jimbo Mathus, recorded live on Jimbo’s porch. Humphreys has been a member of the Jas. Mathus Knockdown Society, along with Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars. It’s been said that Hobex is to soul and R&B as the All-Stars are to Mississippi blues.

“I’ve learned a lot from those guys,” Humphreys says. “We’re all trying to write music that has a timeless quality. I don’t want to write something that’s real trendy or not musical. You hear a great song from the ‘20s or ‘50s or whenever, and it has a lasting quality beyond its commerciality.”

Of course, Hobex, the Zippers and the All-Stars have all been embraced by “jam-band” fans. “It’s a scene that’s got open ears,” Humphreys says. “A lot of other music scenes are anti-virtuosity. At the heart of the whole jam band thing is the idea of,