Keb? Mo? on his own terms

His name sounds exquisitely Delta-blues-drenched, but Keb’ Mo’ hails from nowhere near Mississippi. He actually comes from the Compton, Calif., neighborhood better known for spawning such rap stars as Dr. Dre, Eazy E and Marion “Suge” Knight. And the moniker Keb’ Mo’ is really just a childlike interpretation of his given name, Kevin Moore.

But as the pop mainstream’s roots musician of choice, Moore has proven he’s no flash in the pan … and that you don’t need to be from the Delta to stare down the devil. “Blues is about soul, about heart,” he says. “And you can’t B.S. a blues audience. They can see a fake coming a mile away.”

Like Bonnie Raitt and Robert Cray, who bridged the gap between blues and R&B before him, guitarist/vocalist Moore puts a good spin on the blues. “I love muddy water, it’s dirty but it feels all right,” he sings on a tune from his latest release, Slow Down (OKeh/550 Music, 1998). “We don’t want pain. There’s enough pain in life already,” Moore observes. “The blues is about facing the pain, but we don’t wallow in it. If you talk about pain, you gotta laugh at it.”

But, pain or no, Keb’ Mo’s blues do come from the core of him. “I write songs totally from experiences, and that’s the hard part,” he explains. “There’s a lot of ground to cover. What do I want to say? Where am I today? I just sit down and start playing my guitar and try to find myself on the instrument. Then I try to find something worth saying, worth wasting the plastic on, worth wasting the fossil fuels to drive down the road and buy.”

Moore knocked around the Los Angeles club scene during the 1970s, and did a three-year stint with former Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna violinist/vocalist Papa John Creach — his introduction to the Southern California blues community. He recorded an album on Casablanca Records in 1980 that bombed. Discouraged, Moore started working a day job at a record company.

He took on the persona of Keb’ Mo’ as he began to study the musical language of Delta blues legends — even spending two weeks absorbing all he could in the presence of the classic Delta fingerpicker Eugene Powell. Like his inspiration, the enigmatic Robert Johnson, Moore then had what he calls his own “crossroads” experience. “I was about to give up on music,” he admits. “I had tried and tried. I was 35, and I felt like I hadn’t accomplished much. I was taking an electronics course and was ready to take a 40-hour-a-week job. But one day, I decided just to give up all the expectations I had about music. I decided to be myself, and just play music for the love of it.”

Moore found a management team and got himself signed to the newly re-formed OKeh label. His self-titled, debut release was a W.C. Handy Award winner in 1995, and his follow-up, Just Like You, won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 1997. Moore decided to co-produce Slow Down with colleague John Lewis Parker. “I don’t know if I want to produce again, but I’m glad I did this time,” he says with a laugh. “John Porter [who had produced his first two releases] is a great producer, don’t get me wrong. But when you work with a producer, there’s always another person to influence your ideas. I wanted this to be all from inside me. After I record an album, I enjoy performing and really getting to know the songs. They’re not just for me — I’m hoping to find some common ground with people.”

Slow Down features some familiar Keb’ Mo’ side musicians — drummer Laval Belle and percussionist Munyungo Jackson — as well as background singers Sir Harry Bowens and Sweet Pea Atkinson of Was Not Was fame. “It’s important to play with people that you know and enjoy, that understand what you’re trying to do,” Moore notes.

Moore’s original tune “Victims Of Comfort” and his inventive cover of Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen” are good examples of tuneful leadership from his first album. Just Like You features “More Than One Way Home,” an autobiographical look at growing up in Compton, with guitar work that tips a hat to session master Phil Upchurch. Slow Down moves from the engaging funk of the title track to the catchy “I Was Wrong” — a poppy number that could easily have been performed by Eric Clapton (or even, in a far greater stretch, by Huey Lewis). Moore acknowledges that his songwriting breaks traditional blues rules, explaining, “I’ve been exposed to and influenced by a lot of different music.”

The songs on Slow Down have a natural, at times unpolished feel. It’s almost as if the listener were privy to an inspired, private jam session. During the fade of “Muddy Water,” Moore offhands, “That’s about all…” His “A Letter To Tracy” sounds like it was recorded live from the living-room sofa. Yet Moore maintains that the grittiness did not spring from any deliberate design. “That’s just the way I am,” the 47-year-old says. “I don’t have flawless guitar technique or perfect pitch. I’m raw, and I’m just trying to find myself in the song.”

Lyrically speaking, Keb’ Mo’ would have to be considered an enlightened bluesman: “I’m not into singing angry blues and finger-pointing, where the man is angry at the woman for something she did or said. There may be another side to the story, and she may have had a good reason for doing what she did.”

Many blues legends have described their run-ins with the devil — Robert Johnson, Jack Owens, Sunnyland Slim, Jessie Mae Hemphill, to name a few. Johnson also often sang about the “hellhounds” that were chasing him. “The hellhounds were whatever was bugging him,” Moore contends. “He had his problems, like everybody else.”

Moore, himself, is more apt to send positive messages about the devil’s nemesis, as he does on “Hand It Over” and the radio-friendly “God Trying To Get Your Attention.” “That’s more where I’m coming from,” he confides. “Let go and let God.”

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