Keb' Mo': Keep it Simple
Genre: A lyrically upbeat and neatly manicured variation of acoustic blues
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- There’s a joke about country music that goes something like this: What do you get when you play a country song backwards? Your broken truck runs again, your estranged wife returns home and your dead dog comes back to life. Similarly, the music of Keb’ Mo’ is like the blues in reverse. Musically, Mo’ is rooted in rural, southern acoustic blues, while his lyrical spin is markedly more upbeat than the somebody-done-somebody-wrong fare so typical of the genre. In his songs, broken relationships land jelly-side-up, the French vacation and house in California become realities for working stiffs and gratitude is expressed for the daily things that actually go right. While the singer/guitarist has a worthwhile message to impart, he wisely employs tongue-in-cheek wit to offset his occasionally pretentious, overly affected approach. The title track of his latest disc, Keep It Simple, aims squarely for the suburbanite with its opening line about having “two cars, three kids and six phones,” even though it’s right on target with its post-Thoreau, modern-life-gone-awry sentiment. On the track, Mo’ lightheartedly portrays the harried American with a frazzling array of choices on the TV remote, the automated phone system and the coffeehouse menu. Technically (according to the National Conglomeration of Really Broke and Pathetic Blues Composers), no one with a satellite dish can legally qualify for blues status. Seriously, though, most purists would probably dismiss Keb’ Mo’ as a gentrified, high-concept charlatan co-opting a genuinely American form of music. Because African-American musical heritage is taken pretty seriously, there is some controversy around the deliberate use of predominantly black styles by black performers to appeal to an upper-class mainstream audience. Musical ambassador Louis Armstrong’s popularity in the 1960s led the celebrated jazz innovator to be accused of being an “Uncle Tom,” whereas an artist like Ray Charles is perceived as having musical and racial integrity despite his success. Aside from this complex socio-political conundrum, Keb’ Mo’ – urban-ese for his given name, Kevin Moore – has something tasty to offer, even if he does skim a lot of grease off of his low-cholesterol blues alternative.
Mo’, a highly capable guitarist, pays tribute to rustic Delta blues – musically, at least – with his traditional playing style, which features plenty of languid slide work. Along with his guitar, sonic seasonings like banjo and steel mandolin sound sumptuous on this straightforward but slick production, which features guests like Robert Cray, teen blues-rock shouter Shannon Curfman and Nashville royalty Vince Gill and Amy Grant in a low-profile cameo. His easygoing songs are likeable toe-tappers that often deliver grins. On “(You Don’t Have To) Shave Yo’ Legs,” Mo’ combines humor and heart to tell his lady she can forego the formalities and just be herself, while the contented protagonist in “Prosperity Blues” can’t “crack a frown,” such is his good fortune. Tracks such as “Let Your Light Shine” and “I’m Amazing” exhort and encourage us to believe in who we are and what we can accomplish. Mo’ might be hawking humanism here, as he keeps his stance on religion vague. Still, the overall point of Keep It Simple is to accentuate the positive and to take life seriously, but not too seriously. If we’re to take his advice, then it’d be better to overlook his likeable enough stylistic contrivances and simply dig Keb’ Mo’ for what he is. If it’s authentic blues you want, just don’t look for it here. Is that simple enough?
Steve Morley is a free-lance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.