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Keb' Mo' Opens 'Door' to His Blues

The singer-guitarist's fame began when he stopped caring about success.

November 30, 2000|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kevin Moore had a dream: to be a pop star, to be a successful songwriter, to make it big somehow in the music business. But it was only when the singer-guitarist abandoned those plans that his dreams began to come true. For that he can blame the blues.

The blues were supposed to be an escape for Moore in 1989, coupled with an understanding that the raw country blues of Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy were no way to win record deals or Grammy Awards. By then he was calling himself Keb' Mo', a new moniker based on a "street" pronunciation of his real name, to match his change to a rootsier direction.

"There was nothing pretentious about it, nothing glamorous or Hollywood about it," Keb' Mo', 49, says of the blues. "Just raw feeling and honesty."

The irony is that Keb' Mo' spent the next decade finding unexpected success with a mixture of understated blues and modern pop music, winning fans and two Grammys in the process. His is not a straight-ahead re-creation of the blues, but an extra-smooth interpretation, which the Compton-born musician will bring to the House of Blues and the Ventura Theatre this weekend.

On his fourth album, "The Door," Keb' Mo' says, he has arrived at the closest approximation yet of his ideal blend of old and new. One example is the old Elmore James song "It Hurts Me Too," which begins as a traditional blues song before subtle layers of synthesizer and other modern sounds are slowly added.

"It's a classic blues song, just as good as it gets when it comes to the blues," Keb' Mo' says of the song. The new version was meant to offer a mix of the modern and the swampy, with "tasteful" use of synthesizer. "That's how I always heard blues coming out, and blues going somewhere else--rather than the same old kind of thing. But it's respectful of the original version."

Keb' Mo's brand of blues may be nontraditional, mixing the old with the new, but once he decided to explore the genre he made a point of studying the classics. And though he was already a seasoned sideman by that time, he took lessons at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica to help him through the kinks. Anything to bring him closer to the roots.

*

It was all partly a reaction to what had already been an active but unsatisfying musical career that included a stint as sideman for jazz-blues violinist Papa John Creach and a job as a staff writer and arranger at A&M Records.

Back in 1980, he recorded and released an ill-fated and largely unheard pop record for Casablanca Records. That early recording showed signs of what he would later become, he says, but it was also a project of endless compromises.

"It wasn't what I was thinking," he says of the record. "All of a sudden people started suggesting things, and I was, 'Oh, oh, OK, yeah, yeah, yeah.' I had a history of letting people push me around a little bit. I'm not a real aggressive guy. But 15 years later, I just kept going. Maybe I don't have much strength, but I have lots of stamina. So I just kept showing up to the party.

"Then the day came where I really didn't care anymore. I just wanted to play music. I didn't care if I was successful or not successful. I didn't care if I was living out of a box downtown. I just wanted to do it."

It took his first three albums as Keb' Mo', beginning in 1994, he says, to bring him to a place of confidence, with a track record to do as he truly wanted. Even today, he sounds genuinely surprised to be considered a peer by such veteran artists as drummer Jim Keltner and singer Bobby McFerrin, both of whom played a role in "The Door."

"Keltner is a way more daring musician that I am," he says. "So I'm in there with someone who's looking for something as crazy as I am. I had the people there who would help me bring that vision alive."

Keb' Mo' also collaborated on the writing of two songs with McFerrin. They first met two years ago while Keb' Mo' was touring as the support act for Bonnie Raitt. "Bobby really got what I was going for, probably more than anyone I worked with," Keb' Mo' says. "Even after we wrote the songs, it took me a while to realize that he was working with me--as an equal artist and partner. That was very flattering."

*

Kevin Moore first discovered music at age 10, after he was recruited into a grade school music program and handed a trumpet. "I remember the first time playing with the band, playing whole notes--it just felt so good," he remembers. "It just felt like the place to be."

Over the next several years, he would play steel drums in a neighborhood band and perform on French horn as part of the Compton Civic Youth Orchestra, before finding his truest musical voice after an uncle handed him an acoustic guitar. Then blues disciple Taj Mahal performed at his high school in 1969. The young musician spent the next year obsessively listening to Mahal's "Natch'l Blues" album on his car stereo.

"Circumstance was always kind to me as far as music," Keb' Mo' says now. "It must have been a predestined thing that I was supposed to do music, because circumstance always came up.

"When I put my hand on the guitar the first time, that was it. Two weeks later I was playing the guitar, finger-picking and the whole thing. I knew four chords, five chords--I was ready to rock."

* Keb' Mo', today at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 10 p.m. $25. (323) 848-5100. Also Saturday at Borders Books & Music, 1415 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, 1 p.m. Free. (310) 393-9698. Saturday at the Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura, 9:30 p.m. $30 and $40. (805) 639-3965.

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