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Issue 1084

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Keb Mo: New Man With Big Plans

KEB MO (photo Meghan Aileen-Schirmer)
KEB MO (photo Meghan Aileen-Schirmer) Keb Mo @bluesandsoul.com Keb Mo @bluesandsoul.com Keb Mo @bluesandsoul.com

I woke him up. Jet-lagged after the trip from his home in Nashville the day before, Keb is getting a nap at lunchtime in his London hotel. He sits up in bed, has a drink of water and in a subdued and slightly croaky voice, tells me to crack on. How dare he sleep and ignore my calls! Does he not know who I am?

So, the new CD, âThe Reflection.â His first new studio album since âSuitcaseâ in 2006. These twelve songs are the product of anâ important period of personal and professional growthâ for Keb. Since his last record, he has married, had a child (well his wife did!), moved from Los Angeles to Nashville; built a state-of-the-art home studio, lost his long-term record deal with Sony, and founded his own label.
Keb Mo is a threeâtime Grammy winner for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and four other nominations. He has won a WC Handy and several other prestigious awards. His debut album âRainmakerâ in 1980 was under his real name, Kevin Moore. We had to wait 14 years for his next, âKeb Mo.,â Then in 1997, he scored big-time with the Grammy-winner, âJust Like You.â Two years later, a second Grammy, for âSlow Down.â But thereâs a six year wait for his hat trick of trophies, with âKeep It Simple.â

Keb, or should I say Kevin, was born in October 1951, so doing the maths (why do the Americans miss off the s?) he is 60. But he looks 15 years younger, the lucky bugger. He began his musical career as a youngster, playing steel drums and upright bass in a calypso band. Jefferson Airplane violinist Papa John Creach, snapped him up for four albums as a 21-year-old in the 1970s. His song-writing prowess secured him a staff job as a writer for A&M.

He had many years in the acclaimed âWhodunit Band,â with Monk Higgins, who produced Bobby âBlueâ Bland. Keb soon got a reputation as a hot shot on guitar, and he got to jam with such blues stars as Albert Collins and Big Joe Turner. The word spread fast. He was a sought-after session player, and big names were recording his songs, including Joe Cocker, Buddy Guy and BB King. I photographed Keb a decade ago, sat alone on stage with acoustic guitar and harmonica, opening for BB on his European tour. He was mighty, and won a deserved ovation.

Keb has guested on several top artistsâ albums, including Amy Grant, Buddy Guy, BB King, and on Claptonâs âBack Home.â He has dueted with Tracy Chapman, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. He co-wrote with the Dixie Chicks, for one of their smash albums. He supplied vocals for two of bass hero, Marcus Millerâs albums. Miller reciprocating, guesting on Kebâs current record, along with sax star Dave Koz, Motown guitar legend David T Walker, soul girl India Arie and country star Vince Gill (turning in a very fine soul vocal.) Basist Victor Wooten also appears.

So with all these big names, and two years to make it, was it worth the wait? Well, I thought it was pretty special. Very soulful. Funky in parts too. Certainly not an out and out blues album, as some would expect. Neither is it stripped down and rootsy. (Watch out for the full review on www.bluesandsoul.com soon.) I ask Keb about his departure from the blues, and what he felt people should get from the album? His answer surprises me.

âI expected everyone to hate it. I really did. I wanted to do something different, so I did it and I did it to the best of my abilities. Expecting to get a lot of âwhatâs thisâ type thing. I got a little bit of that, but overall I got a pretty positive response. I was surprised actually. But itâs a part of me, that type of music. It is as much of me, as Robert Johnson.â Refreshing change from the often common stance of; âit is my best work ever, and I know everyone will just love it.â

âWhen I make a record, I try and make what I want to make at that time. I canât set out to make an album of any specific genre. With âThe Reflection,â those were the songs that came out. It is about a feeling. What I was feeling in that moment. A reflection of where I am at in my lifeâ¦yeah, thatâs what I wanted to do with that record.â

We talk about blues being the foundation of all music. âIt was rhythm and blues, not rhythm and pop. It is all the same stuff, from the same school. I creatively love to have fun. When making a record and in my life. Thatâs the most important thing. Even for my second record, people were saying âwell whatâs this?â John Porter and I went in to make the second record, and I showed him the songs and got; whatâs this?â Keb laughs loudly.

âI have always kinda stirred things upâ¦.I find when you are in the blues genre it is really, errâ¦. a lot of people donât like the blues, you know. Lot of them really donât like it. So when you say blues, a lot of people wonât even give it a listen. I like to kind of jump around the genres, and challenge the boundaries of music. I think that is a really cool thing.â His mobile âphone alarm goes off loudly, to signal the end of his nap, and we pause a few seconds while he turns it off. Heâs backâ¦â¦â¦â¦.We talk about the time it took to make the record, which he himself produced, and the cutting of the umbilical cord with his record label.

âYes, it took me two years to make the record. I was busyâ¦moved to Nashville, got married, had a kid. My record deal was up at Sony. With the climate in the record business, I did not know what to do. I wasnât in a panic, I just thought; oh well. What is this new record business now? What is it about? What do I do now?

âFor a year, I was just sitting back watching. What are people doing? How are they putting their music out? How are they marketing it? Iâd been with Sony since 1994. So I launched my own label, and built my own studio. A partnership with Ryko.â The label is Yolabelle International, distributed by Ryko and the Warner Music Group.

âI thought, I donât want to just put it out myself. Iâd never put a record out on my own. I want some help. I want to also support the record business; I donât want to just turn my back on the record business. It is great you can control the record, but when you are told you do not need a record company today, I say well, I donât know about that. Letâs see.â He is quite critical of labels in general though. âAs a whole, they have been wasteful and arrogant. I am not speaking about any individual here. The way they do business, spending money lavishly, and artists not really getting much of a return as per record. The whole plan has kind of worn itself out, the old record model, and times changed.â And havenât they just?

Keb says he got sound advice from his friend in Nashville, top singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman. âSheâs really good at it, and I talked to her about it. Sheâs the one who really schooled me about it really. She said hereâs what you do, and you will like your results. Youâll earn some money, and get your investment back. Which is another awkward thing, because with a record company, I never really had to talk about money much. They handle all that stuff and creatively, you can distance yourself from the business side. Just work on creatively being a conduit for your music and for your truth. Now you have to add a business factor to it, and for me it is awkward, you know.

âIt is not me being uneasy dealing with money, because we all deal with money, but as it pertains to the creative process. You always have to look at your fans as not so much a fan who likes your music, but you start looking at them thinking; âhow can I get 20 bucks out of them.â And thatâs awkward.â

So Keb prefers to leave that to someone else, and focus on what he is good at. But he knows now he is the label boss and the artist, heâs got to deal with it himself. âYeah. As an artist you have to do it with even more compassion. Itâs like, if you like a steak. Someoneâs gotta kill the cow to get you your steak. In these days, you gottta be man enough to go kill your own cow.â I joked with Keb, that when you had someone in your corner like his manager John Boncimino, you donât need to kill your own cow! He laughed loudly. I knew John from back in the early 90s, a very experienced and respected manager, when he ran the career of the late, great and much missed blues legend Albert Collins. Keb has a top man on his team with JB, for sure. A question I often ask an artist, is the one where I get to find out how they see themselves. âIf someone had lived on the moon, and did not know Keb Mo and what you do, how would you describe yourself, and the new album?â Keb tells me, without a thought. âIâd say, Iâm Keb Mo, hereâs my album, take a listen and see if you like it.â I tell him, âYeah, thanks for your help on that one Keb. Cheers. Go back to sleep.â We both laugh. âOK, you want an answer, how about thisâ¦â¦â¦What I do through music; I tell the truth. Sometimes it sounds like the blues, sometimes it doesnât. âIâll take that one Keb.

It is said in the marketing blurb, that Keb has âa deep emotional connectionâ to these songs. Are they autobiographical? âAutobiographical in a minute sense, maybe. The most autobiographical song I ever did, was âMore Than One Way Home,â from my album âJust Like You.â They are all a little miniature auto-biographical moment that I felt. âInside Outsideâ is very autobiographical. It is about an attitude I have in life. My philosophy of life is; your environment reflects exactly where you are at. What should I do? Why is this happening? I look at results of whatâs going on, and make my decision based on those results. About my life. People treat you the exact way you project. If Iâm broke, or making money and losing money. If Iâm happy, healthy, it is all my doing. I take full responsibility for my life, and blame no one for any bad or good things in my life.â

So he is basically saying, you get out what you put in, and the album is reflecting his own life. âYesâ¦.always reflecting â¦â¦â¦..I am grateful for what everyone does, but I hold myself accountable for my own life and my own being. It is a very calm way to live.â

Kebâs personal favourite from the CD? Title track, âThe Reflection,â which he wrote with London-based writer Phil Ramocon. Phil is a hugely experienced musician who has performed with big stars such as Jamelia and reggae legends Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. He co-wrote "Buffalo Stance" with Neneh Cherry, nominated for an Ivor Novello award and a Grammy. Keb and Phil have been friends since the late 70s, when they both did a session on a Jimmy Cliff album. He also wrote âStandinâ at the Stationâ from Kebâs second album. On a writing trip to LA, Phil hooked up with Keb and they wrote two songs. One of them, âI See Myself In You,â became âThe Reflection.â

âWe sat down and I wanted to do something really different. I pulled out the song I had already written, âI See Myself In You,â and said this is a good song. It is good, but there is nothing really special about it. Letâs re-craft the melody, and try to make it a standard like a âFly Me To The Moon,â or âAll The Things You Areââ¦something like that. We didnât quite make it, (he laughs) but I thought it turned out to be something really unique. That song indicates more about me and who I am, than any song on the record. It is David T Walker on guitar with me, who played on a lot of Motown records, like âI Want You Backâ by the Jackson 5.â

Talking of Motown, I mention I just did an interview with Lamont Dozier. âI love that guyâ¦â¦â¦â¦â¦.. I spent a lot of time with him in LA.I worked on a session with him. He called some players, including me, to work on some really complex songs. About 12. Theyâll be out there somewhere. Wow, there were some great changes, really complicated. In fact, one of the most challenging sessions I had. It was back when my reading was pretty up, and I had been doing a lot of sessions.â

We chat about Kebâs new family, and his son Carter Mandela Moore. He has started him young in the businessâ¦â¦â¦..he is the baby you hear crying twice on the new record. (I wonder if he got a session fee?) âHe was a new baby when I started the record.â It is a real family affair on the final track, âSomething Within Me,â where Kebâs late Grandfather is heard singing, and his mother, sister and several other family members. His wife Robbie Brooks-Moore sings backing vocals on the album. He tells me they named their son after former US President Carter, and the great Nelson Mandela. Keb is a big fan of Carterâs achievements in office, and of the man himself, who he met once on a âplane.

âCarter was to me, our greatest president. Very under-rated. Only served one term. If you only do one term, you either did something really horrible or something really great! Very kind and peaceful man. In the Iran contra troubles, he was considered weak when he would not bomb Iran. Like Bush did, when we went to war with Iraq for no reason at all.â So how does he rate Obama?

âI think he is a great President, but he might have got into office too soon. He has great ideas, but not been able to get a lot of things done, because the republicans are stone-walling him on everything. They donât want him to accomplish anything. They are throwing the whole country under the bus, to make sure he does not accomplish anything significant, so they can get power back.

âI believe he should have waited, and there should have been more of a clamour for him. He was marketed, and convinced the public, and became president. He was our best choice at the time. I think he is still our best choice, but him being in office, exposes division and divisiveness in the country, in terms of politics and a little bit of racism. Still rearing its ugly head. Thatâs the part people donât really like to talk about. Iâm not one to really blame racism, because it is an excuse that people use sometimesâ¦. to justify something that has nothing to do with racism. I donât deny racism, but I donât blame it either, because you can rise above it.â

Keb is a member of the âNo Nukesâ group. He also toured with Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne in 2004 as part of the âVote For Changeâ campaign.

Kebâs friend Robert Cray, was praising his music to me back in the summer, when I chatted with him in his hotel. We were discussing the trend of blues artists going down the rock road more and more these days. He said one guy to stay true to the blues is: âmy friend Kevin Moore.â

So, the gig at The Barbican on 7th November, with Aaron Neville. What can people expect at the show?

âSome songs from the new record, and from previous records. I have Les Falconer the third, on drums. On bass we have Vail Johnson (Herbie Hancock/Whitney Houston). I have two keyboard players; Michael B. Hicks on Hammond, and on electric piano is Kevin So. On guitar with me, is my old keyboard player Jeff Paris. Me on guitar and singing. We always do the opener from the new CD, âThe Whole Enchilada.â We may do âWe Donât Need Itâ and âThe Reflection.â I like to change it around.â

Yeah, you seem to like to âchange it aroundâ Keb. Long may it continue that wayâ¦â¦â¦.


⢠âThe Reflectionâ on Yolabelle International Records/Rykodisc was released on Oct 3rd in the UK.

⢠Keb Mo and Aaron Neville appear at The Barbican, London on Monday7th November. www.barbican.org.uk/music
Words SIMON REDLEY

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