Keb' Mo'

Kind Of Blue, 2014

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Keb’ Mo’ is a national treasure. Can we just agree on that before we get started?

The man has spent the last 20 years bringing the blues to mainstream audiences. There will be purists who say he’s not as authentic a bluesman as he could be because he can gets a little folky and introspective and sometimes writes songs that use sweetly melodic acoustic guitar and banjo rather than dirty electric. But when you hear Mo’ bust loose on a classic old-time blues—as he always does eventually—there can be no doubt he’s the real thing. The difference is that Mo’ is an artist whose work doesn’t live only inside the blues idiom; he stretches across boundaries and drops in and out of blues, Americana, r&b, folk, New Orleans jazz, and more, with the common thread being his distinctive, genuine voice. And isn’t that what the blues is all about, in the end—singing about life in a genuine voice?

That’s the backstory to Mo’s 12th album BLUESAmericana, whose title suggests a characteristically matter-of-fact declaration of the genre-straddling nature of his work. Like any bluesman worth his salt, he knows how to turn the ups and downs of everyday life into engaging entertainment, as opener “The Worst Is Yet To Come” demonstrates, cataloguing a day filled with calamities small and large. In typical Mo’ style, though, he defies expectations by wrapping this tale of travail in a steady-on mid-tempo beat decorated with banjo and harmonica, to the point where it almost feels like he’s celebrating the bad things that are happening to him, not in a contrary way, but in an amused/exasperated way, as in “can you believe this sh#@?” my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Somebody Hurt You” digs deeper into the blues with its back-porch sing-along handclaps and repeats, and gospel call-and-answer vocal arrangement. Up third, “Do It Right” is an anti-blues, an upbeat affirmation and statement of purpose from a narrator who’s screwed up relationships in the past, but is ready to commit to a real one now. The sense of romantic optimism continues with the gently funky “I’m Gonna Be Your Man.”

“Move” rides a dark, pulsing groove, a tune about changing your life, hopefully for the better. The emotional center of this album arrives with “For Better Or Worse,” an eloquent tune about what the word “commitment” really means: doing the hard work it takes to navigate a relationship through changes and challenges. It’s a mature love song, arranged as a pretty acoustic ballad, with Paul Franklin’s pedal steel accents lending the song a country-folk feel: “I’m willing, if you’re willing / To dig deep and stay up all night.”

Right there, at the farthest point Mo travels from classic blues on this album, is where he turns around and delivers “That’s Alright,” a classic old Jimmy Rogers “woman done me wrong” blues thumper, lovingly restored by master craftsman Mo’. The album’s second highlight follows, as Mo’ enlists the California Feetwarmers to give his wickedly sassy “The Old Me Better” a full-on Dixieland jazz treatment that’s guaranteed to leave a smile on your face.

“More For Your Money” is a pointed economic blues, mixing socio-political commentary with a simple, acoustic-plucked number: “I got a Chinese phone and a Japanese car / But the gasoline takes me twice as far.” Things close out on a somber note with the resigned, elegiac “it’s time to call it quits” song “So Long Goodbye.” Something in the changes and arrangement has a distinct James Taylor feel to it, bringing us back around to the Americana.

To me the key part of the title is not “blues” or “Americana”; it’s “American.” As in, this is quintessentially American music, drawing from strands of musical tradition ranging from the hills of Kentucky to the swamps of Louisiana, stirring in elements from urban r&b and classic jazz and acoustic singer-songwriter genres to create a genuinely frothy blend.

The other thing about Keb’ Mo’ is that he just doesn’t put out bad albums; I have everything he's issued over the past two decades, and there isn’t a slacker in the bunch. That track record of consistent craftsmanship and genuine passion for his music is what makes Keb’ Mo’ a truly special artist. Long may he run.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2014 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Kind Of Blue, and is used for informational purposes only.