Music News & Reviews

Musical palette of Keb' Mo' defies labels, irks critics

Keb' Mo' performed at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival at Madison Square Garden in April.
Keb' Mo' performed at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival at Madison Square Garden in April. Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Sometimes the simplest questions become unintentionally but unavoidably difficult to answer.

In the case of Keb' Mo', such a query emerged when discussing a new album he is finishing this winter. What was asked was routine: What can audiences expect from his latest recording?

"That's always the hardest question," says Mo' (born Kevin Moore), who returns to Lexington on Thursday for a duo concert with multiinstrumentalist/ accompanist Tom Shinness. "What are you in for? I got tunes, man. You know, I got songs. It's the same thing we've been doing. We make a record, we put songs on it. We try to visit life in a way that we haven't before. We try to remain true and really authentic. There's some fun stuff and some heartfelt things."

Mo' isn't being evasive or at all curt in the reply. In fact, in conversation he reflects the same upbeat and amiable personality that abounds in his music. But when tags, labels or even basic descriptions get pinned to his songs, things get tricky.

To many audiences, Mo', 62, is the embodiment of the blues — a new-generation roots music voice so emotive and authentic that he portrayed blues legend Robert Johnson in the 1998 documentary Can't You Hear the Wind Howl.

But Mo's recordings over the past two decades have just as readily embraced soul, contemporary folk, pop and, on occasion, country. Such stylistic popularity has been the proverbial double-edged sword. On one hand, he has established a strong crossover fan base and earned a trio of Grammy Awards. Blues die-hards, however — especially critics — often have viewed Mo' as a faux bluesman, an artist way too cosmopolitan and commercially driven to be viewed as a roots-music ambassador.

"I don't really pay much attention to all that," Mo' said. "I mean, the blues is as good a place as any to hang your hat. It's a very honorable genre steeped in the history of American and African-American culture. It's a proud place to be, and I have no shame at all about it. But how people want to label you is the thing, and I only have a problem with that when they start saying about my music, 'Well, that's not the blues.'

"I don't get angry with that or anything. It's just that I know it's not the blues, because I know what the blues is."

To appreciate just how far Mo' purposely strays from the blues, take a look at the lengthy and diverse list of artists with whom he has collaborated throughout his career. It includes Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Herbie Hancock, Dr. John, Martin Scorsese, Amy Grant, the Dixie Chicks, Jackson Browne, Kermit the Frog and one of his earliest employers, the late West Coast fiddler Papa John Creach. Mo' also recorded a Shakespearean sonnet for the 2002 compilation album When Love Speaks as well as (I See Love), the theme song to the CBS TV sitcom Mike & Molly.

"All these things are in my background," Mo' said. "That's what people really don't know about me. I spent years listening to country music on the radio. As far as jazz and things like that, I've had to play in a lot of jam situations. I took acting lessons back in my 20s and have popped in and out of theater. All of that has come to fruition in ways where opportunities came from them.

"I played folk and calypso. I've played French horn in my high school band. I've done a lot of work. So when I became a bluesman, so to speak, that was the time I got noticed. So when people say, 'Oh, so he's a blues guy.' I'm like, 'OK. Fine. Whatever you say.'"

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