Fueled by the Blues
Keb’ Mo’ is much more than a blues musician. On his recent album, “The Reflection,” this three-time Grammy winner crafted an exuberant collection of original funky soul tunes accompanied by artists like India.Arie, Vince Gill and guitar legend David T. Walker.
With material more reminiscent of Stevie Wonder, Boz Scaggs and even Steely Dan than John Lee Hooker, Mo’ knew that some fans might be a little skeptical of this stylistic evolution.
“It was a record that raised a lot of eyebrows,” says Mo’. “It was kind of like, ‘What’s this?’ Some embraced it, and some were like, ‘I don’t know, I like the old stuff.’ I knew I was taking a big chance. You’re always taking a risk, but that’s what being an artist is all about.”
It’s not like this is the first time he’s taken fans by surprise. Back in 2004, he released another exceptional recording, “Peace . . . Back by Popular Demand,” where the popular musician covered a bunch of peace anthems from the 1960s and early ’70s.
Reflecting on his life and experiences, a number of the songs on “The Reflection” speak to an inner journey of self-discovery. With “Inside Outside,” this artist advises: “Let me remind you of a well-known fact, When you point one finger three point back.”
“That’s very spiritual; it’s one of the key songs,” he explains. “On all the songs there’s a theme of: Wherever you go there you are. It’s like you only attract what you are in your life. So your environment is always telling you exactly where you are. When you look out of your window and look at your life and surroundings and situation, to me, in my experience, it’s always a reflection some kind of deeper, inner picture that you are projecting to the world.
“I don’t think of myself as a guide,” he continues. “I like to share my personal realizations as sharing – not as like absolute truth. It’s like this is what’s happening to me, this is what I’m discovering. Then people can see if it’s resonating with them. It can open discussion, but I don’t want to tout myself as someone who has answers.”
A couple of covers on the record include a sensual version of the Eagles’ hit, “One of These Nights.”
“Don Henley was the Person of the Year at a MusiCares fundraiser, and I performed ‘One of These Nights’ on the show,” he explains. “I can’t really hit the high notes, so I lowered the key and slowed it down. I enjoyed it so much. It’s a really romantic, sultry song, a really sexy lyric.”
Mo’ has some terrific players backing him on the album, including former Miles Davis bassist Marcus Miller, saxophonist Dave Koz, country star Vince Gill on mandolin, Paulinho DaCosta on percussion and Bela Fleck bassist Victor Wootan. They all help him deliver a delicious brew of the kind of classic soul and rhythm and blues that is rarely heard today.
“It’s really a throwback,” he says. “This is the music I played when I grew up, prior to involving myself heavily in the blues. It really rang true to me. I got a lot of good response to the record.”
Born Kevin Moore to parents of Southern descent in Los Angeles in 1951, he was exposed to blues and gospel music at a young age, yet it took many years before he began playing the style of music that brought him fame. At 21, he joined an R&B group and later played guitar with Papa John Creach’s band, opening for acts like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jefferson Starship, and Loggins & Messina. In his mid-30s, he began developing a passion for the blues.
“It wasn’t like I had never played the blues,” he explains. “But I wanted to do something that was really meaningful and powerful so I dived into the blues. I felt like I was tapping into something very spiritual and ancestral that was fueling me.”
Immersing himself in the blues and culture of the Mississippi Delta, he released the self-titled “Keb’ Mo’ ” to critical acclaim in 1994. His next album, “Just Like You,” won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and he won another for his 1998 album, “Slow Down.”
For his 2004 album, “Peace . . . Back by Popular Demand,” he decided to interpret some classic covers equated with civil rights and the peace movement.
The timely collection opened with a soulful, Al Green-style rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” Other gems included Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” (transformed into a sublime church hymn); Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free;” John Lennon’s “Imagine;” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Happening Brother;” and the Youngbloods’ “Get Together.”
“Those are my two favorite albums,” he says about “Peace” and recent “The Reflection.” “At first I was going to do a protest record because the war was about to start in Iraq. I thought that was the dumbest thing we could ever do. But I wanted it to have legs afterwards, and so I changed course and wanted to do a peace record. The label (Sony Music) got a little pissed with me because they wanted a protest record. I did all my favorite songs like ‘What’s Happening Brother,’ which is my favorite song off the ‘What’s Goin’ On’ record.”
Whether playing a National resonator guitar, a Gibson acoustic guitar, or his custom Stratocaster, he describes his style as a combination of the music he grew up listening to – blues, country, soul and folk.
“I’m not really a flashy player,” he says. “If I tried to be real flashy it would have exposed the fact that I’m no Joe Bonamassa. I was never driven to become a shredder; that wasn’t my mission. I go with my strengths.”
This soulful musician was thrilled to be invited to play Eric Clapton’s legendary Crossroads Guitar Festival earlier this year at New York’s Madison Square Garden on a bill that included Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks and Keith Richards. He’s included on a CD/DVD of the event to be released in November. Some reviews hailed his set with Taj Mahal as one of the festival’s highlights. “It was the short acoustic set by Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal, in which they performed such delta blues classics as Robert Johnson’s ‘Walking Blues’ with a stark, haunting power, that brought down the house,” praised the Hollywood Reporter.
“To be at Crossroads was a huge honor,” he concludes. “The fact that I was at Crossroads blows my mind. It validates my guitar playing in a way that I don’t think I’m so bad.”
* Keb’ Mo’ will present a solo acoustic performance at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Castle Theater. Tickets are $35, $45 and $65. For ticket details, call 242-7469.
The Lahaina Restoration Foundation will present its fifth annual Lahaina Plantation Days, a tribute to West Maui’s plantation heritage, from 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday on the former Pioneer Mill site surrounding the old smokestack on Lahainaluna Road.
Entertainment on Friday includes Da Braddahs; Ekolu; Kory Kukahiko and friends; Na Kupuna Ohana Serenaders; and Malino. Saturday evenings’ entertainment features Na Leo; Hoku Zuttermeister; Kory Kukahiko; Kawika Ho’opi’i; and Da Braddahs.
Admission is $3. Children 5 and younger are free.
A Soul to Soul Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan will be held from 9 p.m. to close Saturday at Stella Blues Cafe in Kihei. The evening is a benefit for Mana’o Radio, with many island musicians paying homage to the rocking blues icon.
Guitarists on board include Vince Esquire; Nils Rosenblad from the Gina Martinelli Band; SLAM’s Alan Villaren; Howard Ahia; Benny Uyetake; and Greg DiPiazza. Other musicians participating include singers Gina Martinelli, Clay Mortensen, Jamie Gallo and Kaulana Kanekoa; keyboardist Mark Johnstone; bassists Tim Hackbarth and Don Lopez; and drummers Brad Canton and Josh Greenbaum.
Tickets are $20, available at Bounty Music, Request Records, The Wine Corner Paia, Maui Coffee Roasters and Stella Blues Cafe.
Another tribute event on Saturday spotlights the genius of Joni Mitchell. The “Songs of Joni Mitchell” show will be held at 7:30 p.m. at Mulligans on the Blue in Kihei.
There will be two sets of music. The opening set will feature songs by Mitchell performed by Gaia Best, Jamie Gallo and Louise Lambert, joined by Gilbert Emata. Other musicians performing include Tom Conway, Bill Fuller, Marcus Johnson, Lily Meola, Christy Birchard, Meaghen Owen and Apple Jensen.
“The evening will be a testament to a genius, an innovator, a painter, a poet, Joni Mitchell encompassed it all,” said organizer Gaia Best.
Advance tickets are $15, available at Bounty Music, Lahaina Music and Awakening in Paradise bookstore in the Long’s Shopping Center in Kihei. Tickets at the door are $20. For more information or to purchase tickets online, visit www.louiselambert.com (click on Special Events). A portion of proceeds will benefit Maui nonprofit Women Helping Women.