Keb' Mo', the reincarnation of the Delta blues
By Sergio Ariza
When Keb' Mo''s eponymous album appeared in 1994, it seemed as if a time machine had suddenly appeared and Robert Johnson himself had appeared in the future with a few new songs under his arm, or as if the listener had travelled to the banks of the Mississippi Delta to listen to a bluesman making a pact with the devil at a crossroads.
The funny thing is that everyone would have thought that Keb' Mo' had ‘suckled’ from the original sources, playing blues since childhood, sharing corners with old bluesmen who would tell him stories of Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy or Son House. But it wasn't like that; it wasn't even the first album from an artist who in 1980 had released a smooth R&B record under his birth name, Kevin Moore, the name one of his first drummers shortened to, simply, Keb' Mo'. He himself has stated that it wasn't until he was past 30 that he began to connect intensely with the blues, specifically with country blues, the acoustic blues made in the Delta - that which let out all the miseries, but also the hopes of its performers. From that connection, Moore soaked up the classics and achieved something as difficult as sounding like them but, at the same time, with a voice of his own that would be celebrated by people who know something of the blues of Buddy Guy or Bonnie Raitt.
Kevin Moore was born on 3 October 1951 and grew up neither in Mississippi, nor in Texas, nor in any of the places associated with the blues, but in Compton - the Los Angeles suburb from which rap greats such as N.W.A. and Kendrick Lamar would emerge. But his parents made sure that little Kevin was steeped in the great roots of black music, gospel and blues.
He took an early interest in music and didn't stop until he convinced his father to buy him his first guitar, a $25 Silvertone with which he learned the basics. Of course, like most of his generation, Moore preferred the soul of Marvin Gaye to the blues of the kings, B.B., Albert and Freddie King. His first recordings were in the early 1970s as part of an R&B group with violinist Papa John Creach, who at the time was part of the Jefferson Airplane.
His collaboration with Creach would span four albums, Filthy!, Playing My Fiddle for You, I'm the Fiddle Man and Rock Father, and would result in the first song he would make any money from - which he wrote, together with the violinist - Git Fiddler, an instrumental track that appeared on Jefferson Straship's Red Octopus album, the Airplane's follow-up, which would climb to the top of the Billboard charts in 1975.
He also spent a few years as a composer and arranger for A&M Records but, in the end, in 1980 he decided to take the leap and try his own luck. It was that year when his first album, Rainmaker, still under his name of Kevin Moore, appeared, a work of soul folk influenced by Bill Withers - as in the remarkable title track, or Speak Your Mind. Although he appeared on the cover with an acoustic guitar, there was no trace of the country blues for which he would later be known.
It wasn't until his thirties that Keb' Mo' had a revelation and made blues his religion. After his record went unnoticed, Moore joined the blues band of Monk Higgins, who had been the producer of the great Bobby 'Blue' Bland. It was then that in between jams with Albert Collins and Big Joe Turner, someone introduced him to Delta blues, Robert Johnson became his beacon and he discovered all the others: Son House, Charley Patton, Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy.
Still the money wasn't coming in and our protagonist was on the verge of throwing in the towel and taking a job at a tech company in 1991. But after playing one more Come On In My Kitchen on his old Epiphone Bluesmaster he decided that this was his thing; none of the old bluesmen were in it for the money, neither was he.
He had made the right decision, after making his mark in a play playing a Delta bluesman he was offered a new record deal and this time he jumped at the chance, eleven original songs, already written by Keb' Mo', and two Johnson covers, Come On In My Kitchen and Kindhearted Woman Blues, making him the new ambassador of the Delta sound, Tell Everybody I Know had touches of reggae, Every Morning had a folkie touch, and the best of the lot, Am I Wrong, brought together several decades of black music, both pure Mississippi Delta blues and funk, with a riff that could have been played by Robert Johnson but could also have been used for one of James Brown's wild funk songs in the 70s.
His second album, Just Like You, didn't live up to the first, despite great songs like Perpetual Blues Machine, but the success was already there with collaborations with Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, and the first of his four Grammys. In 1998 he was given the pleasure of playing Robert Johnson in the documentary Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? And five years later he was one of the stars of Martin Scorsese's revision of the genre in The Blues.
One of the worst moments of his career came when his beloved Bluesmaster was stolen. Mo' missed it so much that he asked Gibson to see if they had a similar model, the answer from the legendary house confirmed him as one of the chosen ones, "Why don't we make you one?” That's how his Bluesmaster model came about at Gibson, with only 12 frets, because this expressive guitarist with enormous hands agrees with Chet Atkins that "the money is in the first five frets".
But, although he is known primarily as an acoustic guitarist, Keb' Mo' is not bad on electric either, as evidenced by his solo on My Baby Is Tellin' Lies Again, his favourite of his entire career. His guitar of choice in this section is usually a Stratocaster, mainly a '54, although he has also played a red Hamer with Gibson P-100 pickups and an Epiphone Sheraton.
In any case, with nearly twenty albums under his belt and having collaborated with everyone (from Keith Richards to Taj Mahal), Keb' Mo' is one of the fundamental references of today's blues, to which he was able to bring back the best essences of his place of origin, the Mississippi Delta.