At the onset of his most recent album, BLUESAmericana, Keb' Mo' offers his latest assessment of the blues.
Admittedly, the song stylist born Kevin Moore has spent much of his career refining a musical voice whose blues goes hand-in-hand with pop, soul and, yes, Americana. It's a sound that has established Mo' as one of the most popular and visible faces of contemporary blues music and it has won him three Grammy Awards. Come Feb. 8, he could earn three more for BLUESAmericana alone.
On the album-opening The Worst is Yet to Come, the blues turn traditional, at least, in terms of narrative. The story line details a hapless man who loses his job, car, wife and dog in quick succession.
"Even the bedbugs up and run," he sings over a churchy, country groove.
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"Pretty much I talked to these songs," said Mo', who returns to Lexington for an Opera House performance on Wednesday. "I sort of had conversations with them. It was like, 'Alright, songs. What do you want to do? Where do you want to go? Who are you? What do you want to say, and how do you want to say it?' And what is interesting is, I worked backwards on this record.
"Normally you go in and make a track for the record, then you sing on top of it. But on this one, I sang first and got the tempo. The vocal was always the first piece. That way the song was the thing that was always key. I didn't want anything to get in the way of it. I monitored everything on it so as not to compromise the story in any kind of way."
But there is also curious inspiration at work on the song, one that borrows the blues from an unobvious source. The verse about losing the wife and dog? That was triggered by a recording from pioneering comedian Richard Pryor.
"One of his albums has a skit where his woman is leaving him and Richard is begging, 'Baby, please don't go.' Then after she's gone, the dog starts talking to him. He says, 'Richard, I love you but I'm going with her. She feeds me three square meals a day, but you're a little tardy with the food. But I'm going to leave you a little something on the floor to remember me by.' So that's a song where I worked backwards so I could start a story of my own. I just love that skit so much."
Already a bluesman with considerable crossover appeal, Mo' found himself part of numerous tribute projects in 2014. Some were grounded in the blues; others sent him to an entirely different stylistic world.
Among the latter was a MusiCares benefit honoring Ozzy Osbourne and longtime pal, Jeff Greenberg, in May. The event placed him onstage not with one of his blues/soul contemporaries, but with Metallica.
"I was the quietest guy there," Mo' said with a laugh. "The event was all about recovery from substance abuse and those kinds of things. I resonate so much with all of the spiritual concepts that come through the 12 step program. I just tend to gravitate toward those people from the spiritual side, not necessarily from the substance side. I come from the side where sometimes there is nothing you can do but to lean on the spirits to get through the things you can't control in your life."
More recently — and, perhaps, more expectedly — was an all-star November tribute celebrating the 75th birthday of gospel-blues empress Mavis Staples that placed Mo' in the company of Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal and Gregg Allman, among many others.
"Oh, that was a blast. That was a super blast. When Mavis calls on you, ... man, that's like going to the White House. It was during one of those times of the year that I would have rather been at home. But they said, 'This is for Mavis.' So I said, 'Yes. I'm coming.'
"I mean, there is no other answer. I don't care who you are. There is no other answer but 'yes' when people ask you to come out for Mavis Staples."