Reviewed on this page:
Keb' Mo' - Just Like You - The Door
How LA is this? An Los Angeles R&B guitarist (born Kevin Moore) reinvents himself as country bluesman Keb' Mo' after playing Robert Johnson
in a movie. It sounds like a recipe for insincerity, but if Keb' Mo' is faking it, he sure fools me: his acoustic and slide guitar work
and slightly hoarse, John Fogerty-ish voice are effortlessly convincing, joyous and sorrowful at once.
His songwriting is deceptively simple, plain-spoken without sounding clichéd or intentionally old-fashioned.
But as soon as Keb' Mo's debut won a bunch of blues awards, he started trying to cross back to the
mainstream, and his most recent release is an album of pop standards intended for children.
Keb' Mo' (1994)
A masterful debut. The writing here is startlingly pure, never hitting an artificial note and occasionally taking unexpected jabs at modern society ("Victims Of Comfort").
The arrangements are spare but never monotonous: most tracks are built around his guitar and/or banjo, with light touches of other
instruments (harmonica on Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen," tinkling piano on "Dirty Lowdown And Bad"),
punctuated with unpredictable syncopation (the spellbinding "Am I Wrong"). On a couple of piano-based tracks, he reveals himself to be
a dreary, world-weary pop singer in the Bob Seger mold ("City Boy"), but by then you'll be inclined to forgive him.
Produced by John Porter.
Just Like You (1996)
There isn't a big dropoff in any one area, but every aspect of his game is a bit off. There aren't as many unaccompanied tracks, and they aren't as taut as on his debut ("You Can Love Yourself"). The social
consciousness and uplifting lyrics aren't as compelling ("More Than One Way Home"); the romance themes aren't as convincing ("Standin' At The Station") The sleepy pop tunes aren't throwaways, they're centerpieces (the
title track, with Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt on backing vocals). For all that, the record's not a disaster, because his core skills are so good: he can bring you to tears with a simple lyric
("Momma, Where's My Daddy"), he's always playing something unexpected on acoustic ("Perpetual Blues Machine"), and his casual manner adds just enough grit to keep anyone from getting too comfortable ("Dangerous Mood").
There's another Johnson cover, "Last Fair Deal Gone Down," this time performed by a full band.
Produced by Porter; the core players are James Hutchinson (bass), Laball Belle (drums) and Tommy Eyre (keys).
Slow Down (1998)
The Johnson cover du jour is "Love In Vain."
The Door (2000)
By now, big success had attracted big names: producer Russ Titelman and session musicians including Greg
Phillinganes, Jim Keltner, "Ready" Freddie Washington, Reggie McBride, Steve Jordan, Scarlet Rivera
and Leon Ware.
The full band squashes much of the charm of his debut, giving the proceedings a processed late Clapton
feel (title track), though his voice and guitar (when you can hear it) are unaffected -
as a result, the few unaccompanied tunes are clear highlights ("Loola Loo"). The lyrics are hit or miss as well: there's a terrific love
song ("Anyway") and a surprisingly direct call for social action ("Stand Up (And Be Strong)") alongside platitudinous romance ("Come On Back")
and self-help numbers ("It's All Coming Back"). There are just enough flashes of brilliance to be frustrating; mostly it's no better than any
other blues record cut after the genre became frozen in time.
No Johnson covers this time, but there is a full-band take on Elmore James's "It Hurts Me Too."
Big Wide Grin (2001)
A standards album that's apparently being marketed as children's music, with covers of
"Love Train," "Grandma's Hands," Sly and the Family Stone's "Family Affair," "Big Yellow Taxi,"
"Isn't She Lovely," and "America The Beautiful." Guests include Brenda Russell, Freddie Washington and Gerald
Albright. I'm intrigued, actually, but I haven't seen a reasonably priced copy.
Keep It Simple (2004)
Peace... Back By Popular Demand (2004)
Turns out Neil Young wasn't the first person to notice that the Iraq war was a bad idea. Mostly covers of familiar up-with-people anthems ("Wake Up Everybody"; "For What It's Worth"; "What's Happening Brother"; "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding") with one original, "Talk."
Looking for the door?