Keb' Mo': Bluesman Is Keeping It Real

Keb' Mo' performs in New Orleans, October 2012
Keb' Mo' performs in New Orleans, October 2012

Musically, the guy known as Keb’ Mo’ (a street variation on his given name of Kevin Moore) can do a lot of things. Whether it’s smooth or fast-paced rhythm and blues, funk, jazz, folk and even a little bit of country, here and there, he loves to collaborate with other musicians, notably jazz players or country legend Vince Gill and the great Bonnie Raitt.

But when you get down to it—and he can get down to it—Keb’ Mo’ is a blues man, pure but probably not so simple.

In a way, he’s keeping the tradition alive. The blues (and southern gospel) are the wellspring of rock-and-roll and American pop, rock and all that jazz as well as the songs and poetry of southern African Americans. He is a link to the Delta Blues of Lightning Hopkins, Robert Johnson, the Reverend Blind Gary Davis, Sonny Terry and others, but he’s also a blues man in the contemporary vein.

“I tried to do something different every now and then,” said the Los Angeles-born star in a phone interview. “But you know, people know you for who you are, and they don’t want you to stray too far.”

While he has a string of hit albums—his latest, coming out this month. “BLUESamericana” features songs and music played to good effect in the juicy stews of live performance. To that end, Keb’ Mo’ is playing again at the Music Center at Strathmore at 8:30 p.m., April 3. Perhaps not the hotbed of down and low, low down blues, but there it is.

“People—everybody—respond to the songs,” he says. “It’s about real life. It’s modern blues, but it’s like the old blues, been-down-so -ong songs, people getting love, or sex, or love, losing it, trying to survive, get down with some joy in the music. Today, life is a little different, and I write my songs to be about today. The music, that comes from everywhere, from all the greats, but the songs, they’re mine.”

His voice is direct and smooth. Accessible, it speaks right to the heart and soul, and feet, as the blues are wont to do.

“Yeah, sure, I like to play with other people,” he said. “That Bonnie Raitt, man, she can play. She is one bad-ass player. I can hardly keep up with her.” That’s not exactly true, although Raitt has a high-power way about her on stage, and her playing is what he says it is. “And country music, it’s like regular blues. It’s about drinking, lying, cheating, love, heartache, that kind of thing—you got those guys that could really sing that.”

“Oh, yeah, I had some thoughts about being a rock star, you know that kind of life,” he said. He comes from Compton, Calif., a city in Los Angeles County. “That kind of thing … you know it took me a while to get everything straight, and forget about that. “ One of his musical mentors was a guy named Papa John Creach, who played with Jefferson Airplane, one of the premier rock bands from the San Francisco Bay area.

The really personal and original stuff in his music comes from his own life. He has even written songs for a children’s album, called “Big Wide Grin.” He appeared in 2001, on Sesame Street with the whole gang—Kermit the Frog, Grover, Elmo— all singing “Everybody Be Yo’self.”

Keb’ Mo’ no longer lives in L.A. He and his wife moved to Franklin, Tenn., where they’re raising a six-year-old son named Carter. “That kid is a trip, let me tell you,” he said. “It’s an experience, you know, to be with a little kid. Everything’s new. They got all that energy.”

This is a blues man decidedly in the real world, doing his part: he’s part of the No Nukes group, for which he recorded his own version of the Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth.”

He says “BLUESamericana” is a new phase for him. It’s different from his last album, which included India Arie, Vince Gill and Marcus Miller. If the last album, “The Reflection,” sounds personal, it is with a personality touched by the blues, for all the things that matter: “Do It Right,” “For Better or Worse”, “The Worst Is Yet To Come”, “Somebody Hurt You, “The Old Me Better”, and “I’m Gonna Be Your Man.”

He remains a traveling man. His tour stops at New York City; Victoria, Canada; Evanston, Ill.; Middletown, Ohio; Grants Pass, Oreg., Saratoga, N.Y.; Minneapolis, Minn., among many other places.

But home is in the back of his mind and where he came from, as he sings in a song about his bringing up in L.A. — “There’s More Than One Way Home”: “Daddy came around every once in a while/but momma, she was there all the time/and summertime in Compton was not like TV/but we were right there where we needed to be.” He says he was influenced by Taj Mahal from the 1970s: “He was doing things his way and that’s what you do”—but he, too, has found that there is more than one way home. “My audience, it’s a little bit of everybody—older people, blues people, black and white, young people. Sometimes, I think I’m the oldest guy in the building.”

Maybe yes; maybe no. Keb’ Mo’ sure doesn’t play or sing like the oldest anything when it the blues.

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