MO' BETTER BLUES

The standard promotional line on singer-songwriter Keb' Mo' goes something like this: One of the first artists to be signed to Epic's newly revived blues label (Okeh), Keb' Mo' is an unknown Los Angeles-based guitarist who's being heralded as the latest wunderkind of acoustic, Delta-derived blues. His self-titled album showcases a strikingly fresh voice in a profoundly American music.

Well, that sounds nice, but it's completely bass-ackwards. Not only does Keb' Mo' (given name Kevin Moore) play guitar and harmonica and sing the blues like it's the only game in town, but he's also adept on banjo and dobro. In addition, Mo' is not a young buck, in spite of his boyish grin and angel eyes: He's 42, and he's worked as a professional musician in the L.A. area for the past two decades. When asked if he's often mistaken for a newcomer, Mo' responds, "That happens a lot. But I don't try to lie about it. I don't think age makes any difference."

Nor does the setting or the type of music he's playing, Mo' adds. As a musical hired gun, he made his reputation working with artists who specialized in a wide variety of genres--R&B, jazz and pop, as well as the blues. "I wasn't really into this acoustic, Delta-revival kind of mode," he confirms. "I was more of a regular sideman, playing in a lot of other bands. So, basically, I was invisible."

Now working primarily as a solo acoustic act, Mo' says he doesn't see a great distinction between being a frontman and supporting someone else. "It always feels good to play music, no matter where you are," he notes, his voice untroubled, reserved and whisper-quiet. "In front. In the back. It really doesn't make any difference. [Today] there is more responsibility. More things to do and more people to respond to. But it doesn't make the joy of playing any more or less."

That pleasure is audible throughout Keb' Mo', a release that comes as close to wonderful as any modern acoustic-blues album you care to name. Mo' is a sensitive and accomplished player, but the most compelling aspect of his work is his tender, emotive singing. At times Mo' sounds smooth and sassy--a bit like Lou Rawls. But he's also capable of earthy, primitive vocals marked by angst-riddled enunciation. On his album, Mo' offers driving, mournful versions of two Robert Johnson tunes ("Come on in My Kitchen" and "Kindhearted Woman Blues")--and by avoiding the temptation to redo masterpieces, he produces a pair of extremely moving interpretations.

A similar blend of strength and individuality can be heard in the compositions penned by Mo'. "Every Morning" and "City Boy," for example, are infused with a gentle understanding of the blues as both a feeling and an art form. Mo' is also proud of "Love Blues," which he co-wrote with Eugene Powell. "He's 85 years old and lives in Greenville, Mississippi," Mo' reveals. "I got to go down and meet him, and he got to teaching me the blues. Some old blues things. We wrote the song together when we were down there."

Another unusual Mo' offering is "Victims of Comfort," which seems on the surface to be nothing more than an impassioned tale of wanderlust and lost love. Listen closer, however, and you'll discover what may be the first environmental song cut in a Delta style. "That was written with my writing partner, Tim Kimber," Mo' says. "We've done a lot of different kinds of stuff together. Originally, this was written on the piano, so we just kind of took it and adapted an acoustic blues to it."

While Keb' Mo' isn't Moore's first recording, it's gotten far more attention than his previous efforts. What comes next? "Well, we'll just have to figure out what to do," Mo' says, laughing. "We'll just have to do the same thing we did on that one--and that's just be in the moment, I guess. Let it flow as it will. Not try to calculate it. That album just kind of came as it did, and that's how the next one will have to come, too. I don't know if it's going to be more acoustic blues--I really have no idea. I'd like for it to be just as spontaneous as the first one. Sparse. I like sparse."

In the meantime, Mo' is finally making a name for himself using a derivative of the moniker he struggled under for twenty years. But he's not complaining. "Well, I guess it's better than being known as No Mo'," he jokes. "As long as they know the music, as long as they recognize that, then it will be fine. Who knows? Maybe I'll get to be Kevin Moore again. That would be nice. Yes, that would be nice. But Keb' Mo'--for now--is okay."

Buckwheat Zydeco, with Keb' Mo'. 8 p.m. Saturday, September 17, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, $15.50 in advance/$16.50 day of show, 443-5858.

 
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