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When I had last spoken to Keb' Mo', it was right around the time his synth-drenched shitbag of an album, Door, was released in the fall of 2000. That CD—more James Taylor than Skip James—came as such a disappointment that I determined I wanted no Mo' of Keb', the traitorous bastard. It wasn't that Door had no redeeming tracks—"Loola Loo" was so fine it almost (almost!) compensated for the Mengele job Mr. Mo' did on Tampa Red's "It Hurts Me Too"—but rather that the album seemed perhaps the most blatant attempt to sell out in the blues world since B.B. King started making disco albums in the '70s. And now here was Keb' Mo' distancing himself from the genre that made him a star, telling me that he was a singer/songwriter rather than a blues artist, defending this limp-wristed yuppie handjob of an album as if it were High Aht, and acting as if the blues were a queef emitted from the loins of Camryn Manheim—when she had a yeast infection.
Okay. And now while I can't quite forget that highfalutin' conversation or assbomb album, I'm in a charitable mood today. Greatness can have that effect on me, and with Mo's 2001 follow-up, the man born Kevin Moore re-affirmed the early critical hosannas heaped upon his pointy little noggin as a Modern Savior of the Blues. When at his best, Moore—along with Joe Louis Walker, Corey Harris, Shemekiah Copeland and Alvin "Youngblood" Hart—has made the present era a truly golden one in the blues, a fact that may not be appreciated until the passage of time puts an exclamation point on their collective efforts. But the fact is that Moore (it's difficult to force myself to utilize the cutesy Ebonics handle) is an amazing guitarist, singer and composer when he wants to be. And with his career-best Grin, the reluctant blues warrior hit a creative geyser.
But I still wanted to pin the guy down when I interviewed him last week. With the synths left in the closet and an album Moore agreed is his best yet on the racks, was he ready to abandon the superior "singer/songwriter" mythologizing and accept that, indeed, he is a righteous blues artist?
"When you say 'blues artist,' you immediately think, you know . . . people got a stigma about a blues artist," Moore says. "They think of some down-and-out, funky . . . I don't know—my image of myself changes daily. I don't know if I can ever fit the bill of being a 'bluesman,' the integrity of that. I personally think there's a tremendous integrity in being a bluesman, an integrity that I don't know if I can live up to. To me, being a bluesman is honorable—it's like being a king. People ask me, 'Are you a bluesman?' and it's like they asked am I the greatest man that ever lived. 'Bluesman' carries a great thing for me, and I don't necessarily think it's the same thing for other people out there. The general public would like to think of an Uncle Tom—that's what they thought in the '60s and '70s, during the civil rights movement."
If that passage confuses you, you're not alone. The paradoxical Moore himself seems to be tortured over the very concept of the blues artist—or is it perhaps the commercial implications of being labeled as such? How can the guy put the bluesman up on such a lofty pedestal but still fear others' retarded perceptions of that which he professes to so admire?
"I was into the blues for a long time, but I was kind of in the closet with it, you know?" Moore admits. "I was reluctant to step out with it because of my perceptions of what a bluesman was—which was somebody that didn't make any money. But then my whole perception of the music business was about making money—it wasn't about a love of music. Then I realized I wasn't gonna make no money anyway, no matter what I played. And the irony was that I learned that when you do what you love, the money follows. The thought that I wasn't gonna make any money anyway led me back to where my true love was in music."
So Moore may be conflicted about career and financial concerns, but upon further prodding, it becomes apparent that his respect for blues traditions are very real and deep. At heart, Moore's a purist—which makes his production of compromised music even less defensible. But that's also the source from whence he draws the soul and passion to produce masterpieces such as Grin and his stellar 1994 debut.
"You can't really take the blues to a new place because the blues itself, in its traditional form, has been defined—defined by the genre and period in which it was created those times," he says. "You can expand on it, but for me, that expansion has to be a very natural and organic thing. You can't just go, 'Let's take it somewhere else.' For me, that doesn't work unless it's rooted in some kind of authenticity.
"I only listen to old stuff," he continues. "I'm gonna listen to some old Muddy Waters; I'm gonna listen to something that has some richness. I'm gonna listen to some Robert Johnson, some Howlin' Wolf, you know? I'm gonna listen to some shit, you know what I mean? The real deal. I wouldn't put on myself to listen to blues. I know that's what Corey [Harris] or Alvin [Hart] would do, too."
Why the back-to-basics turnaround? If nothing else, advancing age may have convinced Moore to stick to what he knows and does best.
"What the fuck else am I gonna do?" he asks. "I'm a 50-year-old black man. I ain't gonna be no pretty boy."
KEB' MO' PERFORMS AT THE CERRITOS CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, 12700 CENTER COURT DR., CERRITOS, (800) 300-4345 OR (562) 916-8500. WED., 8 P.M. $30-$40. ALL AGES.