Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Mo Keb' Mo'

Following my previous post, I got an interesting response from Darko, whom I might call a blues purist if he doesn't mind me using that expression. I don't know Darko's credentials but I can tell from his passionate and eloquent music reviews, especially in the blues and jazz genres, that he has some music background (maybe he would care to elaborate?) on which to base his opinions and I do value them. Following Darko's comment about singing "Dem Ol' Mortgage Blues," I went to see which album that song was on because I knew there was one (it's actually called Prosperity Blues for anyone who cares besides me, and actually there are a few songs on this particular album that I've never been crazy about although it did win a Grammy for what that's worth...usually a bad sign from a purist's perspective). I found this review of said album, Keep It Simple, which I thought was an especially good review. So this is really just for Darko, to validate what he said, and for anyone else who gives a whit (emphasis mine):

"Keb' Mo' is less a blues singer than a performer who works from that conceptual base, not in the way Taj Mahal does, knowingly carrying a tradition forward, half teacher and wise elder, but more as a populist, the James Taylor of blues [please note, he does not say Kenny G. although this is getting dangerously close], say, or a less recalcitrant J.J. Cale. To criticize him for not being Skip James or Robert Johnson sort of misses the point of what Keb' Mo' is shooting for, and like Bonnie Raitt discovered, bringing a modern popblues to a wide audience sure beats playing authentic for purists. Either path is as fake or as real as the other in a postpostmodern age where the blues creaks along as a single DNA strand in a world of rap, metal, and neosoul. All of which makes the blues a strange career path to use to get straight out of Compton, yet that's exactly what Keb' Mo' has done, rising out of one of toughest urban landscapes in the world by covering Robert Johnson songs on his National steel guitar. So enough about whether he's a real bluesman or not, because in the end he has to put supper on the table, and he does it by crafting a warm, wry, bluesinformed version of pop Americana that wrestles with contemporary problems like how to pay the mortgage, the high price of coffee, or how to afford a vacation in France. "France," the lead track on Keep It Simple, pretty much states the case with the lines "Wake up Mama/Don't you fret/I found two cheap tickets/On the Internet," which Keb' Mo' sings in a honeytinged voice over a patented and tasteful blues shuffle. Later, in "House in California," he sings, "Better have good money/If you're looking for a house/In California," and again, he uses a shuffle to hang the news on, looking no further into the past than necessary to put the song across. Keb' Mo' is a solid guitar player, and is a master of the easy, nuanced vocal, and he makes like Denzel Washington on this album, commenting on the little problems and travails of contemporary life with a winning grin and an assured stance that you can't help but like. Is this a great album? No, just a good one, all of a piece with his earlier work, and his debut release, simply called Keb' Mo', is still probably your best bet for a first purchase. That's the album the critics like best because it stays closest to the Delta definition of the blues, and it is a good album, but Keb' Mo' didn't trade Compton for the Delta just to stay there. He's looking for a house in California and a plane ticket to France. Aren't we all? That's the blues, folks."

- Steve Leggett, All Music Guide

And understanding his upbringing in Compton (South Central Los Angeles) makes the song City Boy, off of his first album, all the more poignant. It's one of my favorites, but there are gems on every album. There are also some real losers, but I'll take the bad with the good. That's what iPods are for. Let the culling begin. ;-)


At 8:40 PM, December 12, 2006, Blogger DarkoV said...

A great post. I hadn't read that review you posted by Leggett before. I'd agree with him up to a point. In his first major album (he had actually recorded one album under his given name, Kevin Moore) as Keb' Mo', I thought he succeeded quite well as a blues musician. Alvin Youngblood Hart and (especially) Corey Harris and Chris Thomas King are his contemporaries. While all 4 started out in blues, Mr. Mo' tooka different direction after his first album. By his third he had veered off completley from the blues, I think. I agree and had already mentioned that his desire to make a great living (as opposed to a good living) is not something to judge critically. However, I have a major problem with his bieng classified as a blues musician, which he no longer is. Other major talents have started off in one musical playground before ending up in some other park. Nat King Cole is a great example since he was viewed as a very good jazz musician initially and then as a pops singer for the balance of his career.

So, yes, he has a great voice and yes he can twang it every now and then now, but please, PLEASE, put his cd's in the Folk or R & B section. Just keep him out of the BLUES; he's carpetbagging it there.

At 8:49 PM, December 12, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

...please, PLEASE, put his cd's in the Folk or R & B section.

Yes, Sir! 8-}

Um, where should I put Billie Holiday?

At 6:59 AM, December 13, 2006, Blogger DarkoV said...

Billie stays in a category all her own.
Auto-de-fe Jazz.

At 11:04 AM, December 13, 2006, Blogger beth said...

I guess I'm just going to have to suck it up and go try to listen to some of this to even begin to have an inkling. Still...it's an interesting discussion, though it might be about football rules for all I know. :)

At 3:07 PM, December 13, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

Beth, the very issue that Darko raises about Keb' Mo' not being a bluesman makes him much more accessible to people who may not like that true gritty blues sound. I've introduced several people to the blues who might not otherwise listen, by giving them his self-titled CD (Keb' Mo'). Give him a listen...I tell people he's the most upbeat blues musician I know...just listen to tracks 1 and 2 off of that CD. Track 8 (Am I Wrong) is some great guitar playing. And Track 13 (City Boy) is a really great ballad. This whole CD is great. But then again, reasonable minds may differ. ;-)

At 5:59 PM, December 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'll check this out, although I don't have that much of this genre' i am always open to expanding, and keeping an open mind about different music

At 9:49 AM, December 14, 2006, Blogger DarkoV said...

I'm in complete agreement with you about Mo' #1.

And, at that, I'll be exiting this comment.

At 1:08 PM, December 14, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

Susie, same suggestion as I just gave Beth. I feel like I'm preaching the gospel or something. ;-) Really, I've nothing to gain, but love to share what I think is a really good thing. I might add, for both you and Beth, that another track on that CD that bears listening to is a contemporary version of a real blues classic (written by Robert Johnson, the "real bluesman" who authored many songs that continue to be interpreted by the contemporary Delta blues musicians, and who died at the young age of 28, rumored to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for musical genius)...anyway, that song is Come On In My Kitchen.

Darko, thanks for the suggestions on Keb'Mo's contemporaries. I'll be checking those out. I always enjoy your input.

At 1:09 PM, December 14, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

...and I love the new Auto-de-fe Jazz category. ;-)

At 9:24 AM, December 16, 2006, Blogger DarkoV said...

Being a general Greek bread here,i.e., Pain In The A_ _.
Other contemporaries of Mr. Mo's to consider, althouhg you may already be familiar with them.
Guy Davis (son of Ossie Davis. Excellent in concert, if you get a chance).
Clarence Spady (excellent first album...still waitin' for #2)
Popa Chubby (who proves that da Blues can still be fun even if you're, fat, white, bald, and Jewish)
Eric Lindell (who's...o.k., not great)

At 2:21 PM, December 16, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

Hey, thanks for the suggestions. I finally had a chance to check 'em out and downloaded several albums (I especially liked Corey Harris and Chris Thomas King). As you mentioned that Keb' had departed from the blues, it seems Chris has moved away from hip-hop and into gospel (at least on Rise) and Corey has taken a turn into reggae...and so it goes. I like the other influences in their less than pure historical preservation. And they both give Keb' Mo' a run for his money. ;-)


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