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Issue 1084

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Keb Mo: Hot Pink live Americana Blues anyone?

Keb Mo pic
Keb Mo pic Keb Mo pic Keb Mo Live CD cover pic

Four times Grammy-winner and eight times nominated, blues and roots star Keb Mo has played for Presidents in the Whitehouse. On the ‘phone from his Nashville home promoting his new live album, you can bet the man has been asked just about everything there is to be asked since he cut his very first album some 36 years ago. Not quite…………..

So, Keb, you were a guest on the US TV series Sesame Street in 2001 alongside the Muppets. I need to ask you to be honest with me here; did you have sexual relations with Miss Piggy?

“Absolutely. It was frigging hot, too. But Simon, don’t you tell Kermit.” I follow up that question with the bizarre moment when I am doing vocal impressions of Kermit, Piggy and Fozzy Bear down the dog and bone to the deep laughter of Keb Mo.

I first met Keb and saw him perform that same year, 2001 when he opened for BB King on his UK tour of that year. He was here two years ago and Keb’s latest trip to these shores saw him sell out London’s Union Chapel in July, his only UK show of this year. He tells me he is hoping to come back next year, but he will not be alone……..

Keb exclusively revealed he has just made a new album with his hero and main inspiration, Taj Mahal and will be touring with Taj next year to coincide with the album’s release. Before that, he is busy plugging the new live double CD. Unusual title. “Keb’ Mo’ LIVE - That Hot Pink Blues Album.” Bright pink plain cover. 16 tracks on two discs. Why bright pink? Keb agrees with me; “Why not?” Unusually for an artist who has been releasing albums since 1980, this is his first full live album, and it came about almost by accident. His sound engineer recording shows from the mixing desk digitally, night after night for posterity and when Keb heard some of them, he realized there might be something his fans would want to hear. Among the recordings.

But why wait so long for a live album? Like me, Keb is not a big fan of live albums, as they can often be inferior recordings and audio quality (and performances) compared to studio albums, warts and all, and can be a letdown. So he was not keen on putting himself through that to end up with something half as good as his studio releases. Until he heard the tracks his engineer had got on the hard drive from the various gigs around the US and Canada.

“You are doing what you do, going to a show and putting your arse on the line. You are asking people to come and pay money and take their valuable time, energy and spare time to come see you play. It is a lot of pressure,” so for a live album….”I am putting myself out there on another level I think, showing up naked….”

“The reasons you pointed out are the reasons I shied away from making a live album for so long. But this record has a vibe to it, a really good energy. I wanted people to hear what I sound like live as compared to a studio, when it is all dressed up.”

It was recorded at shows in nine different cities and venues, and minimal overdubbing. “You get what you get, the way we did it on those nights.” Keb asked me what I thought of the record and if I felt it held up as a live album. “It captures the essence of what you do night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year, on stage in many countries. It shows you can deliver without a band, with a band and with the kitchen sink thrown at it, and it doesn’t need digital skulduggery in a studio to make Keb Mo sound good. Really personal….”

Keb chips in: “Yeah, I think it did capture me. I was surprised it captured what we are doing. The three songs on the record recorded at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville where we had an eight-piece string section; I thought it was really cool to capture that moment. We did four songs that night with the string section, but I felt I had a better recording of the fourth song we did not use on the record, when played with the band on another night.”

The choice of pink? “My wife asked me what I wanted people to get from this recording, and I wanted to say that a Keb Mo show is fun…..So let’s make it pink. Hot pink!” Keb laughs loudly. He got his way though. It looks more like the packaging for a hot new perfume or make-up range – never gonna get overlooked in the record store racks!

It is Keb’s 12th album; his last, “Just Like You,” was released in 2014, and is produced by Mo’s band mate and Grammy-nominated producer Casey Wasner, 16 songs taken from his catalogue, recorded on his 2015 US and Canadian tour. Mo’ is backed by keyboardist Michael B. Hicks, bassist Stan Sargeant (Al Jarreau) and Casey on drums. His combination of masterful, anecdotal writing skills, guitar versatility and rich, resonant, blues-soaked vocals, testament to his longevity as an artist.

“The best band I have played live with. I have had bands with a lot of crack shots in, high end studio musicians. This band is Nashville guys and one from Atlanta. The drummer and keyboard players are up and coming. Casey produced the record and he is a multi instrumentalist. I beat the hell out of them over a period of a year, so there’s a little love/hate in there you know, “Keb laughs. Yes, there is definitely a palpable chemistry between Keb and the band. This is a band where the guys are really supportive of what I am doing, which is hard to find. There’s very little ego in there.”

There’s stripped down tracks and full orchestra cuts here. Opening with “Tell Everbody I Know,” a lovely cut of “Life Is Beautiful,” and the often requested “Government Cheese.” Disc one closes with, “The Door.” CD two opens with “Come On Back,” second of three Nashville recordings, Keb’s home-base. Final track, the hauntingly beautiful “City Boy.” All top drawer stuff. This album just like Keb, exudes coolness. Cool without trying to be. Natural as breathing for him, and just like his mentor Taj Mahal, they make it sound like they could be sat in your front room playing and singing just for you.

Part of the album sales will be donated to Playing For Change, an organisation that builds music schools worldwide. They have already developed twelve schools, including in Mali, Thailand, Nepal, Brazil and South Africa. Keb Mo aka Kevin Moore, has been involved with PFC since its inception. Keb is also a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities as part of the Turnaround: Arts program. Keb’ serves as mentor at The Johnson School of Excellence in Chicago, Illinois. Despite his fame and global success, Keb is a very humble guy to speak to and genuinely believes in putting something back in to society for all he takes out as a reward for his talents.

He will be 65 this October. Plans to slow down or the “R” word? “If I didn’t have a nine-year-old kid, I’d probably be thinking about retiring,” Keb laughs loudly. “That rules my retirement.” Keb re-married at 55, and with tongue in cheek, he adds: “That killed my retirement!”

Keb, born as Kevin Moore, strives to live his life and career by taking on board what he considers to be the best advice he has ever been given. From a book by Deepak Chopra. “In the Hindu religion, there is the Goddess of knowledge and the Goddess of money. When you seek knowledge more than money, the other sister gets jealous and doesn’t like it. She tries to woo you away, and starts to throw money at you.

“So the metaphor is; seek knowledge in life and do not be focused on money, that is the greatest thing. The moment I realised my life was about music and loving the love of music, rather than the love of what music can get me, changed my life immensely and that was a realisation after years of failure.

“My ‘Rainmaker,’ album failed. 10 years after that failure, I decided I am gonna get back on the horse and ride again. Not too long after that I got my deal with Sony through a lot of weird circumstances. I wasn’t looking for a record deal, I was just following what I loved, doing what I loved. The actual doing of it and seeing the results is the best gift I ever got.”

“I wrote a bunch of songs early on from making up a bunch of scenarios, and then I realised I could be writing songs about my own experience and things that were close to me; I realised that my life was literally my life.”

He released his debut album “Rainmaker,” under his real name of Kevin Moore in 1980. Then his first album as Keb Mo, the self titled release, in 1994 on Sony. There are three tracks from that first Keb Mo album on his new live album; “Tell Everybody I Know,” “She Just Wants To Dance,” and “City Boy.” He did record “Rainmaker,” but it didn’t make the new live album.

A previous album title “Blues Americana,” he says (almost) sums up his style of music. “It is not all blues, not all Americana. It is a mix of music that I grew up with, learned to love and got familiar with. It became a part of me. I am a result of my upbringing, my coaching musically and socially.”

Many artists have covered Keb’s songs, including B.B. King, Joe Cocker, Buddy Guy, Solomon Burke, Robert Palmer and Zac Brown Band. His favourite cover is actually by a British artist. “Jacqui Dankworth’s cover of “One Friend.” I called her and thanked her.” Jacqui the daughter of Dame Cleo Laine and the late Johnny Dankworth. Keb has collaborated with a who’s who of music legends, including Bonnie Raitt, Amy Grant, Jackson Browne, Natalie Cole, Lyle Lovett, Melissa Manchester, Timothy B. Schmit, Marcus Miller and many more. His personal favourite is with country star Vince Gill on the song, “My Baby’s Telling Lies.”

But that may be surpassed soon, by his album project with Taj Mahal, as he tells me: “The Keb and Taj record will be the favourite collaboration I have ever done with anyone. Being a student of Taj Mahal, to do an album with him is the pinnacle for me. This is going to be the album of my career. I think the album turned out really well. That collaboration is the most intense and best combination. 12 songs; songs we wrote together and covers of other people’s songs. We did a cover of ‘Squeeze Box,’ by the Who. ‘Waiting On The World To Change,’ by John Mayer. It is half originals and half covers.”

So that has ticked one off from the bucket list. What ambitions does he have left? “To become more effective at what I do, so I can be of more service in the world. If what I am doing has any validity to it, let me do it better and let more people hear it and let me be unattached to what that means.

“I don’t want my ego in my career; I am very grateful for where I am and what I get to do, and the people I get to be around. I am very grateful for that and I take it very seriously. As an artist, I don’t know what effect I am having, and nor should I know. I should just do it, and have its most divine intention inside my heart. I hope I can continually put that into the word and do my part, for the world.”

Best moment of his career? “Being part of the Bill Withers tribute in Carnegie Hall. It was brilliant hanging out with Bill Withers. He is a special individual as is his body of work…and he did it all in a period of seven years. He’s a real dude.

“His wife Marsha grew up with my first wife. My eldest son is 28 and a drummer, he played with Bill’s daughter in her band. I’ve had the privilege and the pleasure to be up close with Bill Withers. If you look on the Pink album, in the middle of it, there’s a picture of Bill Withers, my band and I backstage with Bill Withers. He came to the show in L. A. I called him and invited him to the show and he rarely goes anywhere. He actually came to the show and our minds were fricking blown, you know. Last year at a theatre in Los Angeles. He came to talk to us before the show, and he held court. He was telling jokes, really funny.”

So from Bill Withers; a great man, a true legend and someone who has brought great comfort to the world with his soulful music, to a controversial guy who is quite possibly about to become the most powerful man in the world. I asked Keb his thoughts on Donald Trump, as a fellow American…

“As America changes and hatred and ego disappear and go away, he is the last message of that ugliness raising its head, struggling to survive while the world is changing and leaving him behind. Donald Trump represents the faction that hasn’t got the memo yet, that haven’t changed.” Nuff said.

“Keb’ Mo’ LIVE - That Hot Pink Blues Album.” (Kind Of Blue Music) is out now.
Words SIMON REDLEY

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