Red, White & Blues
Keb’ Mo’ sees music as medicine for a divided nation
By Bliss Bowen
It’s 7:30 a.m. — no, make that 7:41 — and Keb’ Mo’ sounds impossibly good-natured for a man whose work often keeps him up way past the witching hour.
Then again, he’s in Florida and I’m in Los Angeles, three time zones earlier. He apologizes for calling 10 minutes late, but frankly, I’m grateful; he’s already had his morning tea and I’m still mainlining mine. He understandingly jokes, “Aw, let’s have Scotch,” while I’m gulping down mugs of brain-sparking caffeine almost as fast as the kettle pours water.
Only an hour ago his social media platforms started buzzing with announcements of “That Hot Pink Blues Album,” a double-disc live set due for release April 15, with a vinyl edition to follow June 3.
In less than a week he starts crisscrossing the country on a promotional tour that brings him to The Broad Stage in Santa Monica this Saturday.
Between now and then, he’s squeezing in a four-day stint with the Experience Hendrix tour alongside fellow guitar slingers like Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
“It’s a whole lot of guitar — shredding, shredding, shredding, shredding,” he says with an easy laugh. “I’m the relief from the shredding.”
A PHILOSOPHY OF GRATITUDE
The basics of the three-time Grammy winner’s own tours haven’t changed all that much, though the pop culture landscape into which Keb’ Mo’ launches his music is vastly different from the one in which his self-titled debut made a splash in 1994. (An earlier pop album released under his given name of Kevin Moore, 1980’s “Rainmaker,” didn’t live up to its confident title, although a couple of tracks resurfaced on later Keb’ Mo’ recordings.)
“It’s a little bit leaner — the money doesn’t go as far,” Moore observes. “But people are enthusiastic about coming to shows, which is exciting. The de-emphasis of listening to records, with all the distractions we have with the Internet and Facetime and Facebook and tweeting and all this other stuff that goes on, video games — it’s a bigger and broader world, so it’s amazing that people will still come to a show. Big shows are the thing now. Smaller shows like I do [laughs], you know, I have to work harder.
“The big ones are so fantastic, it’s like a circus. But I mean, it’s probably not going away. I’m happy to play music and happy to be in it.”
That philosophy of gratitude reflects Moore’s metaphysical tastes in reading material: “Metaphysics and books on consciousness and spirituality, human connection to the universe — that’s my favorite subject,” he says. (Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth” has been his book of choice for the past year.)
Hope and gratitude have also been hallmarks of his music since the release of the traditional-sounding “Keb’ Mo’” positioned him in the eyes of some as a flame-carrier who might take Robert Johnson-style blues back into the post-Stevie Ray Vaughan, grunge-dominated pop world.
But the Compton-raised guitarist, who had worked in blues, pop and R&B bands throughout the 1970s and ’80s (most notably with Papa John Creech), wasn’t interested in confining himself to pre-WWII country blues. Throughout his next 10 albums, he used blues as a base while tracing its connections to gospel, soul, folk, smooth R&B and funky pop.
GIGGING AT THE WHITE HOUSE
Moore took his time making 2014’s “BLUESAmericana,” a relaxed and rootsy set recorded primarily in his home studio in Nashville, where he’s been living for the past six years. He called in a few Nashville veterans, like pedal steel wiz Paul Franklin and guitarist Colin Linden, as well as L.A.’s California Feetwarmers, who boosted the New Orleans groove of Grammy-nominated track “The Old Me Better.”
These days Moore is as likely to be found jamming with Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill as with longtime friend Bonnie Raitt, whom he calls “one of the top bluesmen even though she’s a woman. She is so authentic and can hang so hard, with the hardest-core blues person.”
Moore says he’s also a fan of Gary Clark Jr. and Eric Bibb, but adds, “I don’t know that I follow blues so much.
“The blues, I guess like all music, is probably searching for itself and evolving and going through a metamorphosis and hopefully will land in a place with more authenticity. You know? It always comes back. You can only fool people with globotrons [laughs] for so long.”
Last fall Moore was invited to the White House to participate in “A Celebration of American Creativity” alongside Carol Burnett, Buddy Guy, Queen Latifah, Trombone Shorty, James Taylor and Usher. The concert was later broadcast by PBS. He’s humble when describing that experience: “It’s just a lot of fun. … You actually see the show when you play at the White House.”
He’s more forthcoming when discussing a Michelle Obama-organized student workshop in which he took part, as well as Playing for Change, a foundation organized by his friend Mark Johnson that also promotes music education.
“It’s about showing up,” he says — being a positive and mentoring presence for kids, and recognizing that they are finding their own ways to engage with music and the arts.
“I think it’s about interaction. It’s about making artistic opportunities to expand the minds of young people as to what’s possible in life, rather than thinking they’re all gonna be musicians or all gonna be painters, or they’re all gonna be artists. Life is art. Life is art, to me.”
KINDNESS IN VOLATILE TIMES
Twelve years ago, a year after the United States invaded Iraq and a matter of weeks before George W. Bush was re-elected as president, Moore released “Peace … Back by Popular Demand,” a covers collection of pleas for peace and freedom by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, John Lennon and Stephen Stills. Asked if he might break out any of those anthems in concert during 2016’s surreal election season, he laughs knowingly before turning serious.
“This election is, whoa, man. I didn’t think it could ever get this crazy. People in India [where he played Mumbai’s Mahindra Blues Festival two weeks ago] were just, like, amused by the election. And Trump — they were like, ‘What the…?’ [Laughs] The power of media, publicity, and the power of Trump himself to be convincing — to use his influence to put forth the agenda he’s putting forth — is just amazing to me.
“I think the saddest thing about this election is, where are all the people who are really qualified that aren’t running? Why aren’t there more qualified candidates? I think Hillary and Bernie are qualified. I think Jeb Bush is qualified. I mean, I don’t want him to be president; I don’t want any more Bushes in the White House. But that the guy who’s probably the most qualified [among the Republicans] to be president would be in last place — it’s sad, you know?”
Not surprisingly, Moore believes it’s more important than ever during volatile times like these to show “more kindness toward your fellow man and your fellow woman, fellow child, fellow dog, fellow cat. Fellow beings.”
And for musicians and songwriters to cast light through art.
“Go to the people and bring joy. And bring awareness and bring comfort. Just show up and be a positive presence in the world. I mean, I can’t do it all by myself; no one person can do it all alone. But the more we show up in the world, all of us with integrity and with respect for one another, whether you’re playing in Compton or you’re just meeting people on the street or just checking out people at the drugstore — everything should be an inspiring experience. So that we just all feel better and feel more positive, and feel more love.”
Keb’ Mo’ appears in concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 5, at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $65 to $105. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com for tickets; for more on the new album, visit kebmo.com.