Music News & Reviews

As Keb' Mo' eases into the pop mainstream, fans' outcry is muted

Keb' Mo' continues his transition from traditional blues to pop-soul on his latest album.
Keb' Mo' continues his transition from traditional blues to pop-soul on his latest album.

From an artistic vantage point, it's a no-win situation.

You work for years to carve out a niche, a recognizable sound, in the pop marketplace. If you maintain a steady stylistic course, you are viewed as being stagnant. But if you shift even slightly, you upset the faithful who helped build your fan base in the first place.

Such is the crossroads that Kevin Moore — better known to the pop mainstream as Keb' Mo' — has faced in the past year. The three-time Grammy-winning singer, songsmith and guitarist has steadily established himself as one of the most commercially viable and visible blues artists to emerge in the past two decades. Yet on his newest album, The Reflection, Moore, 60, surrendered almost exclusively to the pop-soul sentiments that, in more meager doses on earlier recordings, established him as an assured crossover act.

Some might view the move as simply part of an inevitable artistic evolution. But audiences and critics seldom welcome stylistic change unconditionally. Luckily, Moore expected some dicey reaction to The Reflection.

"If you do the same thing all the time and kind of stay in your lane, then you're just going to be considered as 'reliable' or 'redundant,'" said Moore, who returns to Lexington for a performance Thursday at the Kentucky Theatre for the Troubador Concert Series. "But if you do something different, you're some kind of renegade. It's like, 'Hey, this isn't the Keb' Mo' we know.'

"No matter what you do, people are going to be mad at you. I figured some people would get this album and some would wind up being a little disappointed or perplexed. But I'm encouraged that there has been a lot less of the 'what's he doing?' reaction with the new album than I thought there would be."

In many ways, Moore's move toward a silkier pop and soul sound shouldn't come as a surprise. There are accents of traditional acoustic blues on his early recordings, including his 1994 self-titled debut for Epic Records (it contained covers of two classics by master bluesman Robert Johnson), but Moore has generously dressed his albums with mid-tempo, pop-inflected material that has helped forge his crossover appeal.

But the change on The Reflection is immediate. The album opens with a warm, worldly parable titled The Whole Enchilada. Its inviting narrative has been compared to the music of James Taylor by many critics. But Moore keeps the pop element clearly on the soul side with sleek instrumentation from veteran pop/R&B session guitarist David T. Walker (whose credits include esteemed early-'70s recordings by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock).

"It was magical to work with David T. Walker," Moore said. "He is a real special guitar player. Now, I know a lot of great guitar players. But David is so stylized and so good at what he does that his playing just makes you happy."

Another curious ally on The Reflection is country star is Vince Gill, who guests on My Baby's Tellin' Lies. Moore recently moved to Nashville from Los Angeles, so perhaps the alliance isn't that unlikely. But there also was a challenge: to use Gill's gifts at singing and songwriting without having the tune slide completely into country territory.

On an initial mix of the song, that's exactly where the music wound up.

"It took me a long time to wrestle with that one," Moore said. "I had this great demo of Vince and I singing it. Then we recorded this beautiful track for it in L.A. that was just too country. I mean, it sounded great. But I kept thinking, 'No, I don't want to do that — not on this cut.' So I stripped everything down to the drums and started over. I put some mandolin on it after I urbanized the music a little bit. I really wanted Vince and I to be showcased in something other than a country setting. I thought that would be more interesting."

But perhaps the most telling tune on The Reflection is the album-closing Something Within, a soul affirmation that is a true family affair. It sports an arrangement by his son, gospel harmonies from his younger sister, additional vocals from his cousin and even samples of recorded singing from his grandfather.

"That was actually where the record started. We had this recording of my grandfather singing, but I'm not really good at sampling. I don't know that world. But my son laid down this chord progression, came up with the grooves and put the samples in there. When I heard that, I was like, 'OK.' So we built on that.

And there it is. Change. The sound of the blues as it slides into modern soul.

"I find that it's just the general nature of 'us,' of human beings, to be creatures of habit. But the thing is you always have to be willing to change. You may be met at first with resistance. That's kind of a crazy quirk in our DNA. But over time, that changes. And with music, it eventually becomes, 'Oh, I get it now.'"