Kevin Moore has found the technique that bluesmen have been seeking for decades and hasn't had to sell his soul to the devil to succeed. As Keb' Mo', the singer/guitarist is able to take old blues chestnuts and come up with a product that's not only tasty but fresh. Taking blues standards, slapping a new tempo onto 'em and galloping off into stardom isn't a new concept. The Stones had considerable success with that technique. But what Moore does has more class. His low-key approach seems to respect the spirit of the original while gently tugging it into the present tense. In addition, he has the ability to write new songs that sound like classics.
Despite Moore's best intentions, critics jumped on his back when he adapted a couple of Robert Johnson tunes on his debut album. Mo' was branded a bluesman, and no matter what he brought to the table afterward, that label stayed glued to his back. But it was obvious from his treatment of the music from the beginning that he was gonna experiment with it.
1994's Keb' Mo' was a tour through the low country, a down and dirty back road country blues excursion. Moore's first work paid homage to the Delta blues pioneer by covering two of his songs--the other cuts were Mo' originals, or collaborations. The singer incorporated modern genres into the music without losing sight of the original framework. The record won Moore his first W.C. Handy award.
But Mo' didn't just jump up one day and decide he wanted to play the blues. "I work very hard to make sure everything I do is coming out of actual experience," Moore told Dan McCue in a 2001 interview. Moore had been playing for Bobby Bland's producer Monk Higgins in a blues band in Los Angeles and had met and jammed with blues biggies like big Joe Turner and Pee Wee Crayton before inhabiting the character of a bluesman onstage in a local production called Rabbit Foot. Moore, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Robert Johnson, followed that up by playing the bluesman in a documentary called Can't You Hear the Wind Howl?
But that still wasn't real enough for Moore, who felt he needed to be where the heartbeat of the blues began. The guitarist traveled to the Mississippi Delta to get the feel of the blues firsthand from those on the scene. Moore finally found what he was seeking. "I always tried to write and I always tried to play, but what happened was, one day I just became real comfortable with myself and stopped judging myself," he told McCue.
Kevin Moore's approach to the music has been compared to that of Taj Mahal's, but his delivery is more along the lines of Eric Bibb--smooth and easygoing. But Moore's take on the blues is a bit different from most of its practitioners. He admits that folks in that genre are supposed to be whining and moaning about something, and admits to doing a bit of that himself, but adds that his is done "as an opportunity to heal."
Moore demonstrated his healing abilities over the space of five albums, winning eight W.C. Handy awards and a couple of Grammys as well. But despite the accolades, Moore says that he doesn't consider himself a bluesman. "I love the blues, I do the blues, but I'm probably not consistent enough doing just blues, blues, blues, to be a blues artist," he told CNN.
That's a matter of opinion. On '96's Just Like You, the blues aren't hard to find. Moore only does one traditional blues, and once again Robert Johnson gets the Mo' nod. But just because the rest don't fit the 12-bar woke-up-this-morning framework doesn't mean they ain't blues. "Perpetual Blues Machine" qualifies, in title and in content, and "I'm On Your Side" is a laid back come on that's about as basic as the blues gets.
But it was Moore's critics who were getting worked up. Moore had already found what he was looking for and was comfortable with himself, and '98's Slow Down shows it. Once again there was a Johnson song, and the rest was a mixture of self-penned folk and blues which won him his second W.C. Handy Award, for Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year.
2000's The Door was more Mo', and no Johnson. The only traditional blues was the Elmore James tune, "It Hurts Me Too." But just after the intro, Elmore might have wondered if he had gotten a dose of psilocibin in his swampwater. Backed by legendary rock drummer Jim Keltner, the song has a backwoods stomp with electronic insects chattering rhythmically behind what sounds like a working still hooked to a wa-wa pedal, topped off with Mo's stinging steel guitar.
2001's Big Wide Grin shows Mo' looser and mo' relaxed than ever. Originally pitched to the artist as a children's record, Moore agreed to do it on his own terms. He told the record company he didn't want to do any "goofy little songs," instead picking songs that "I could relate to and that had an impact on me growing up," Moore told McCue. Moore tackles Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," Sly Stone's "Family Affair" and the O'Jays' "Love Train." "To me, I represent the regular guy singing songs. Maybe I don't have the greatest voice in the world. But to me, that's OK. I am the regular guy."
Kevin Moore's regular guy persona is also the secret behind his songwriting success. Asked how he writes new songs that sound like blues classics, Moore told CD Now's Drew Wheeler "I just think you have to surround yourself with an environment that lets that happen. One thing is just a basis in the roots, the blues, and another thing is the basis in life, and what's going on right now." But the most important thing, says Moore with a big wide grin, is to "just keep it real simple."