Keb’ Mo’ has been playing traditional blues and roots music for more than three decades. So he seemed a natural to be included in our Black History Month tribute to musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. I kicked off the series with my January tribute to Amythyst Kiah and then began it in earnest the last three weeks; first with a celebration of the music of Rhiannon Giddens, followed by Dom Flemons and then Otis Taylor.
Kevin Roosevelt Moore (rechristened Keb’ Mo’ around 1994) has been at the work of reclaiming disappeared African American musical contributions for his entire career. His inaugural album included two Robert Johnson covers and he has a well-earned reputation for his mastery of multiple blues styles. But it is his ability to combine traditional approaches with a contemporary attitude, while working with a wide variety of artists, that generates such enthusiasm for his work.
Keb’ Mo’ is more than just a highly skilled retro act. As Nashville Scene magazine writes, he
“…manages the tough task of hovering in and around the blues while not being confined to them. His music creatively incorporates strains of multiple styles, among them folk, pop, gospel, jazz, even at times a Caribbean feel that reflects his earlier time playing steel drums and bass in a calypso band. He’s also a gifted songwriter, able to creatively craft standard 12-bar sagas and tunes with complex, unpredictable scenarios and situations….
His impact has also extended into a curator’s role with his involvement in the 2003 Martin Scorsese documentary series The Blues. So his genre bona fides are unquestioned, even as he continually weaves other elements into his work.
The music does indeed cover a great deal of ground, and I’ll just whet your appetite. Let’s begin with Robert Johnson’s Kind Hearted Woman, which Moore presents in a simple and beautiful arrangement. You can compare it here with Johnson’s original version from 1936.
As James Taylor says in his introduction to Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry from a performance at the White House, “Appalachian hymns, Texas swing, and the blues came together in Nashville to become country.” Keb’ Mo’ opens this heartbreaker by showcasing the blues influence that often gets lost in commercial country.
Put a Woman in Charge, with Nashville royalty Rosanne Cash, came at a time when Moore’s mother had recently passed away at the age of 91. He remembers, “She was smart. She was strong. She was a leader.” He dedicated the video of the tune to his mother, along with “amazing women everywhere that are getting the job done.” His version of Rosanne’s father’s famous Folsom Prison Blues on the tribute to Johnny Cash show demonstrates his skill at taking music from one genre and reinterpreting it in a way that makes it his own.
After gigs in New England in the early spring, Keb’ Mo’ will play two nights at the City Winery in New York City on June 5th and 6th. He’ll be at the famous Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, for two shows on June 10th and 11th, followed by dates at the Avalon in Easton, Maryland on the 12th and the Rams Head in Annapolis on June 13th.
More to come…