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Published: Oct 10, 2008 Raleigh News and Observer
Hobex frontman goes folksy

For the past dozen years, Greg Humphreys has been familiar to local audiences as leader of the band Hobex, a sunny funk-pop soul band. But "Trunk Songs" (www.greghumphreys.net), Humphreys' first solo album, is nothing like what you'd expect.
Where Hobex is perfect cookout music, "Trunk Songs" sounds more like what you'd hear at a campfire in a rustic setting. In contrast to Hobex's upbeat party music, "Trunk Songs" is quiet, folksy and mostly plaintive.

"This is kind of back to the roots of how I ended up playing music," Humphreys says. "My dad was a folkie, always playing music while I was growing up in Winston. This album is kind of a continuation of stuff he was doing – which I rebelled against in high school, of course, with a total garage-rock band.

"But this is stripped down to bare song and voice," he adds. "Doing a literal solo album is something I've always meant to do. But I just never got around to it before. So I'm glad I finally did. I guess you could say I'm 'seasoned' as a player and writer and singer. Maybe it's a good thing I waited."

Even if "Trunk Songs" seems out of context for Hobex, it fits as another step in the overall arc of Humphreys' career. Before Hobex, Humphreys led the band Dillon Fence, recording a handful of fine college-radio pop albums for Mammoth Records in the 1990s. He's also been a valued sideman with Dana Kletter's folk group Dear Enemy and with various projects from the Squirrel Nut Zippers orbit.

Humphreys took his album title from the Tin Pan Alley practice of songwriters stashing unused songs in a trunk. So "Trunk Songs" does a bit of vault-clearing with unexpected covers and genre exercises – from straight-up country recorded with Big Fat Gap to the album-opening jazz standard "I Cover the Waterfront."

"I've got a soft spot in my heart for great classic songs," Humphreys says. "I picked up on 'Waterfront' when I was playing dobro for Reese Gray, a great stride piano player who lives in Asheville now. He's got stacks of those types of songs, so that's when I learned it."

Still, the best moments on "Trunk Songs" come from Humphreys' originals. The best of the bunch is "Townie," a sadly beautiful ode to hanging around college towns into middle age:

Not tryin' to make excuses,

I know I could leave if I wanted to.

That's what I always say.

But if you happen to pass through town,

And you're wonderin' who's still around,

I'm still here …

Give this one some exposure and a few years, and it should stand as one of the definitive Chapel Hill anthems – bookend to a local-music era that began two decades ago with Superchunk's "Slack ."

"Yeah, that's a total Chapel Hill song, written when I was feeling sorry for myself," Humphreys says of "Townie." "That song was a moment in my life, a feeling that others shared and can still relate to. It's autobiographical in a sense, also based on friends. A private conversation between friends in song."

"Trunk Songs" will probably make up the bulk of Humphrey's Sunday morning set at the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance, where he will preside over the "Songwriter's Circle" on the Grove Stage. Playing solo acoustic is something he's still getting used to. But with Hobex on an extended break and Dillon Fence not scheduled to play until next spring's Mammoth Records 20-year reunion party, Humphreys will be in troubadour mode for the foreseeable future.

"Playing this way does feel a bit … naked," he acknowledges. "I'm used to having a kick-ass rhythm section behind me. But playing acoustically, the songs have to stand on their own a little more. It's less about being a great dance-party rock show and more about the listening experience of getting into the songs. It's almost an inadvertent move away from the great funk and soul band I've had for so long, which is easy to rely on.

"But this is something I want people to hear. I'd like to continue making records like this because my ears are a bit singed after standing next to a drummer for 20 years. It's nice to walk off a show and not feel like my head's blown off from volume. I still enjoy the electric gigs, but it's nice to refocus on songs and not have to sing over a band."

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