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Keb’ Mo’

The blues, can on occasions, be stuck in a time-warp for outsiders trying to distinguish who played the best interpretation of many of its classic and not so classic dirges. Although contemporary country-bluesman KEB’ MO’ seesaws to and fro from that equation, essentially he’s a Delta-infused singer-songwriter/guitarist pushing the envelope and strumming to his own beat. His love of legends ROBERT JOHNSON and TAJ MAHAL has been well documented over KEB’ MO’s re-spun career from the mid-90s onwards (in which he’d a healthy run of Billboard Top 200 entries and a raft of Grammy nomination/wins), so an endorsement from none other than filmmaker/celebrity Martin Scorsese, on his PBS America series, “The Blues”, was something to respect. Where to start? Then why not lend an ear to the simplicity of hum-a-long `I See Love’, a track from Keb’s “Suitcase” set in ’06 that became the theme to the long-running CBS sitcom Mike & Molly (starring Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy).
Born Kevin Roosevelt Moore, October 3, 1951, South Los Angeles, California, he was raised by parents from Louisiana and Texas. From his early days performing in a calypso combo (on steel drums and upright bass), the transcendent switch to guitar was ideal, having instilled within him, a deep love of the blues, gospel and soul. Abandoning the dream of spearheading a blues band, there was session work for the guitarist on electric violinist PAPA JOHN CREACH early/mid-70s albums: “Filthy!”, “Playing My Fiddle For You”, “I’m The Fiddle Man” and “Rock Father”. This, in turn, led Moore to co-write instrumental piece (`Git Fiddler’) for his paymaster’s main band, JEFFERSON STARSHIP, for their chart-topping “Red Octopus” set of ’75.
Kevin Moore – as he was then known – duly became a staff writer at A&M Records, whilst a mostly self-scribed one-off LP, RAINMAKER (1980) {*5} – for Casablanca Records off-shoot Chocolate City – went sadly unnoticed until the re-emergence of the title track and `Anybody Seen My Girl’ on future sets.
The 1980s were a wash-out in terms of his solo career, and that went on the backburner. However, there was work a-plenty with the Whodunit Band (led by funk-blues artist/producer MONK HIGGINS), ALBERT COLLINS and BIG JOE TURNER. On the back of Monk’s death in ’86, and a stint in vocal group The Rose Brothers, Moore got his first real break when he played the role of “Guitar Man” on stage (between 1990-93) in the musical play, Spunk; from this small life-line he went on to depict his hero ROBERT JOHNSON for the docudrama, “Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl?”.
A meeting of minds with Steve LaVere (a man who owned the rights to the complete back catalogue of JOHNSON), and on receiving the runners-up prize for Best New Blues Artist at the Long Beach Blues Festival, Kevin Moore inked a deal with OKeh/Epic Records. One imagines that it was at this stage his KEB’ MO’ moniker was given him by his then “street talk” drummer, Quentin Dennard. By the bye, if MO’ is short for Moore, then surely he should come under the M’s and not the K’s; this anomaly has managed to escape rival A-Z music journals.
With a back-up band to match any modern-day blues group (Tommy Eyre on keyboards, James “Hutch” Hutchinson on bass, and Laval Belle on drums), the bluesman got the green-light for his eponymous KEB’ MO’ (1994) {*8} set. Comprising 11 originals (a few penned with Georgina Graper), and a couple of funky rock re-vamps of ROBERT JOHNSON’s `Come On In My Kitchen’ (the definitive cover bar none!) and `Kindhearted Woman Blues’, it was clear this man meant business.
The John Porter-produced JUST LIKE YOU (1996) {*6} and the John Lewis Parker co-produced SLOW DOWN (1998) {*6}, continued MO’s nu-blues modus operandi; even as far as taking on hero JOHNSON’s `Last Fair Deal Gone Down’ and `Love In Vain’. There was the added bonus of cameos from BONNIE RAITT and JACKSON BROWNE on the first of these sets (the title track to be exact), though only Laval was retained when it came to cutting the latter record. Comparisons to TAJ MAHAL and ROBERT CRAY were re-kindled to irk blues purists, while a nod to RY COODER might’ve been more accurate.
Together with a plethora of co-songsmiths (BOBBY McFERRIN, MELISSA MANCHESTER et al) and a studio group, including Jim Keltner, Steve Jordan, Greg Phillinganes, Greg Leisz and re-instated band bassist Reggie McBride, THE DOOR (2000) {*7} focused on MO’s folk-blues forte on star tracks, `Stand Up (And Be Strong)’, the title track (featuring LEON WARE) and a lonesome cover of ELMORE JAMES’ `It Hurts Me Too’.
A change in direction to suit the kids, 50 year-old KEB’ MO’ toned down the grit for sing-a-long part-covers album, BIG WIDE GRIN (2001) {*5}. Not quite a Sesame Street set, rather a feel-good family album, happy-go-lucky MO’ got his chance to pro-karaoke on staples `Love Train’, `Grandma’s Hands’, `Big Yellow Taxi’, `Isn’t She Lovely’ and `Family Affair’.
2004’s Grammy-winning KEEP IT SIMPLE {*7} did exactly what it said on the tin, so to speak; and there was certainly no harm in roping in the likes of collaborators MICKEY HART & BOB WEIR, plus BILL MEDLEY to help bolster respective songs, `France’ and `Walk Back In’. In stark contrast and in a political vein, KEB’ MO’ drew in a different crowd for quick-fire follow-up, PEACE… BACK BY POPULAR DEMAND (2004) {*7}. Showcasing one lone original song, `Talk’, every one of the nine covers carried enough to make a recused Republican run… for cover; `For What It’s Worth’ (STEPHEN STILLS), `Wake Up Everybody’ (HAROLD MELVIN & THE BLUE NOTES), `People Got To Be Free’ (The RASCALS), `What’s Happening Brother’ – featuring Bettye LaVette – (MARVIN GAYE), `The Times They Are A-Changin’’ (BOB DYLAN), `Get Together’ (DINO VALENTI), `Someday We’ll All Be Free’ (DONNY HATHAWAY), `(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding’ (BRINSLEY SCHWARZ) and `Imagine’ (JOHN LENNON).
More’s the pity that Grammys did not equate to album sales (well not in this case); because that would make KEB’ MO’ a very, very rich man. As it turned out the “JAMES TAYLOR of the blues world” – as several reviewers tagged him – was just wholly content to drift in and out of the blues to suit his reverent moods. SUITCASE (2006) {*7} was another perfect example of playing safe; cool enough to spring “emotional baggage”, `Still There For Me’, `Life Is Beautiful’ and the cool `I See Love’; and un-trendy to engage in reggae/jazzy/roots-y cuts, `Your Love’, `Whole ‘Nutha Thang’ and the title track.
On the back of a LIVE & MO’ {*6} part-concert/part-studio effort for his own Yolabelle International imprint, in 2009 (listen out for drummer-boy Kevin Moore II), the self-produced THE REFLECTION (2011) {*6} was another horizontal-in-heaven record that catered for the easy-listening jazz-pop or soul fraternity, rather than the HOWLIN’/HOOKER hard-blues contingent. Still, if one was switched on to Smooth Radio (`Crush On You’ featured INDIA.ARIE), then maybe one could salivate on a re-tread of the EAGLES’ `One Of These Nights’.
2014’s BLUESAMERICANA {*7} was KEB’ MO’ back on track; a country-blues album recorded from deep in the heart of Nashville, but encompassing a jaunty journey around New Orleans, Memphis and Chicago. Although his blues had soul, there was nothing happy in `The Worst Is Yet To Come’, `More For The Money’ and a cover of JIMMY ROGERS’ `That’s Alright’. A subsequent live-on-tour double-disc document of this period – recorded at The Purple House in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee – was unveiled a few years later as THE HOT PINK BLUES ALBUM (2016) {*6}, whilst a year on from that, the spotlight was on both TAJ MAHAL and protégé KEB’ MO’ for the collaborative polished blues of the “TajMo” album. As if to anticipate some great ladies vying for power in the forthcoming US mid-term elections of autumn 2018, the always-reliable KEB’ MO’ and fellow activist ROSANNE CASH had several cutting swipes at a certain Mr. Trump on their download single, `Put A Woman In Charge’.
The latter message was one of several high spots on the spiritual blues man’s Concord Records-endorsed solo comeback-of-sorts, OKLAHOMA (2019) {*7}. Whether railing against the pouting plastic politics of today’s USA, or just life in general (aka the blues), soulful troubadour MO’ was, at times, a hybrid of RANDY NEWMAN (`Don’t Throw It Away’) or friend TAJ MAHAL, who featured here alongside lap steel guitarist Robert Randolph, Latino pop singer-songwriter Jaci Velasquez and Keb’s wife Robbie Brooks Moore; the latter on anchor piece, `Beautiful Music’.
© MC Strong/MCS Nov2018-Jun2019

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