Bluesman Keb' Mo' stays true to his musical philosophy by keeping it simple
In calling his latest CD, "Keep It Simple," bluesman Keb' Mo' got more than a title — he gave himself an important reminder about the album he wanted to make.
"I heard the record being just very easy to listen to," he said. "That doesn't mean I was making an easy-listening record, (just) a record that was just simple to listen to. And the title 'Keep It Simple,' I never want anybody to have to work to listen to one of my records. All of us work hard enough on our jobs. Now I've got to go home and work to listen to your record?
"I wanted it to be friendly. I wanted it to sound warm, I wanted it to sound inspirational and sound valid," Mo' said. "That's what I was after, the bottom line."
Beyond the way "Keep It Simple" applied to the CD itself, the title also reflected a philosophy Mo' tries to apply to his music in a bigger sense.
"It's just about keeping it simple and being who you are, being honest with yourself," he said. "It's very simple. When you're honest with yourself, you say OK, go with your feeling here. You may be a little torn or like favor one decision over another for one reason, but that's probably based on something that you think, what you think somebody else is going to think about it. In your heart, you know which way you want to go, so you just go that way. Tell the truth and everything works out."
It took a good deal of time for Keb' Mo' to recognize the importance of following his instincts and seeking the truth in his music. The guitarist — whose real name is Kevin Moore — had been involved in music for nearly two decades before finding in the late 1980s his true musical calling, an acoustic-based style of blues that continued a tradition established by such seminal artists as Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt and carried forward into the 1990s most notably by Taj Mahal.
Before then there were stints in cover bands and an ill-fated, more R&B-flavored album called "Rainmaker" that was released in 1980. But a return in the late 1980s to the club scene in his native Los Angeles, put Mo' on track.
As a member of the Whodunit Band, Mo' was introduced to blues and got to back such blues artists as Albert Collins and Big Joe Turner when they sat in with the group. Then in 1990 came another key break. Mo' was invited to portray a musician playing Delta blues music in a play produced by the Los Angeles Theater Center called "Rabbit Foot." The role enabled him to delve into the acoustic Delta blues of artists like Big Bill Broonzy and Hurt.
Mo' emerged from his stint in "Rabbit Foot" with a clear direction for his own music, and he has been on track ever since. In 1993, he was signed by Epic Records, which was reviving its blues-oriented Okeh imprint. His self-titled debut, released in 1994, earned strong reviews for its back-to-basics, largely solo acoustic blues sound and its sharply crafted tunes.
Since then, Mo' gradually has expanded his sound, incorporating a full band on CDs such as the Grammy-winning 1996 release "Just Like You," "Slow Down" — a 1998 release that also won a Grammy — and "The Door" (2000) — all without losing the acoustic blues foundation in his sound. Mo' also has released a children's CD, "Big Wide Grin," and last year released a 16-song anthology that was part of the "Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues" series of CDs dedicated to some of the genre's most important artists.
"Keep It Simple" continues the approach of his other blues CDs — and achieves the goal Mo' set for creating a CD that's easy on the ears. Songs such as the gospel-tinged "Let Your Light Shine," the jaunty title track and the soulful "Riley B. King" — a tribute to B.B. King — set the tone, combining relaxed tempos, inviting melodies and a homespun charm. Meanwhile, ballads like "One Friend," "Closer" and "Shave Yo Legs" bring Mo' closer to his spare acoustic roots and offer warm and even humorous messages about the lasting value of love and friendship.
The upbeat nature of his music, coupled with its easy-going feel has prompted some to label his sound as blues light. His response to that label reflects the comfort and confidence Mo' has gained in the direction his music has taken.
"It doesn't matter how people view it, first of all," Mo' said. "It is what it is and what you want to name it is what you want to name. I really like where I'm at. I just play from my heart. That's what I am. If it's blues light, that's all right. Like, I don't emote like B.B. I don't have that. I never did have that. I do emote in another kind of way that's right for me ... So to call Keb' Mo' what he is, it doesn't matter. My job is just to be Keb' Mo.'"
Keb' Mo' plays Wednesday, March 10, at the Pageant. 6161 Delmar Blvd. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show, which also features Kaki King, cost $20.