Keb’ Mo’ busts through blues boundaries
Keb' Mo' has added nuances from other genres to his blues. Expect to hear them when he plays North Shore Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 14.
at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 14
(847) 673-6300; www.northshorecenter.org
Updated: September 5, 2012 2:16PM
Keb’ Mo’ says he feels validation after hearing his fans shout requests for songs—and not just his older songs, but also the ones on his 2011 album, “The Reflection.”
“All the songs were received very warmly — much more warmly than some of the reviews,” says Keb’ Mo’, a Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist who plays Sept. 14 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts.
Those album reviews Keb’ Mo’ mentioned weren’t actually all that negative. For example, the All Music website gave “The Reflection” 3 out of 5 stars, calling it “a warm outing” while wishing it had “a little bit more of a kick to it now and then.” Although Keb’ Mo’ is usually categorized as a blues artist, “The Reflection” does sound more like mellow folk-soul, closer to Bill Withers than Muddy Waters.
Speaking by phone from his home in Nashville, Tenn., Keb’ Mo’ says he noticed a recurring theme in last year’s reviews of his record. He says many of the critics wrote things like: “Keb’ Mo’s finally gone too far.”
He wasn’t surprised by this reaction. “I know what the boundaries are, my perceived boundaries of what I’m supposed to do,” he says.
The truth is, Keb’ Mo’ (whose name off-stage is Kevin Moore) has always been interested in music far beyond the traditional boundaries of the blues. He played with many jazz, rock and R&B musicians for two decades before releasing his 1994 album “Keb’ Mo’” at the age of 42. That record showcased Keb’ Mo’s affinity for acoustic blues, inspired in part by the legendary Robert Johnson. But that was just one facet of Keb’ Mo’.
“I embrace the blues thing,” he says. “I embrace it, and then I go out and do what I want to do anyway.”
After living most of his life in Los Angeles, Keb’ Mo’ moved to Nashville a few years ago, and he says he loves working with the city’s community of talented musicians.
Recent years also brought a change in Keb’ Mo’s record-label situation. After releasing eight albums on imprints owned by Sony, Keb’ Mo’ parted ways with the company and started his own label, Yolabelle, working in affiliation with the Warner subsidiary Rykodisc. The arrangement gives him more freedom to record whatever he wants. He says he’s never been all that concerned about whether the records he’s making are big commercial hits.
“I make a record that I feel is going to hold up,” he says. “Only a fraction of people get to be on the top of the charts. I’m more interested in the longevity of my work and being discovered over time.”
“The Reflection” includes collaborations with India.Arie, Vince Gill, Marcus Miller, Dave Koz and others. Keb’ Mo’ says he enjoys collaborating on songwriting with partners such as Gill.
“You bounce back and forth,” he says. “You can become the audience for each line in the song. … It’s fun. You’re writing, you’re socializing, you’re creating, you’re sharing stories. It’s more than just co-writing. You talk about your life. That makes the song more resonant.”
Despite all the questions about finding the right genre label for what Keb’ Mo’ does, when “The Reflection” garnered a Grammy nomination, the album ended up in the same category as previous Keb’ Mo’ records: blues. It’s as good a label as any for what he does, but don’t be fooled into thinking he’ll stay within its usual boundaries.