Born To The Blues
Blues fest mainstage performer Keb' Mo' poised to become crossover artist.
Thursday, June 24, 1999
The blues weren''t cool when Taj Mahal visited the high school in Compton, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, nearly 30 years ago. Even so, sitting in the audience that day was at least one student who was so impressed by Mahal''s acoustic blues that he never got them out of his soul.
That student, Keb'' Mo'' (real name Kevin Moore), is today poised as a potential crossover artist who could attract a whole new audience to the blues. This last May, he took three W.C. Handy awards: Artist of the Year, Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year, and Blues Song of the Year for "Soon as I Get Paid" from 1998''s Slow Down. Those go along with the Best Contemporary Blues Grammy he won for Slow Down earlier this year, and with his previous Grammy and two Handy awards. To say Keb'' Mo'', a mainstage performer at the Monterey Bay Blues Festival on Friday, is hot is an understatement. But things haven''t always been this good or straightforward.
For years, he struggled with his musical identity. It wasn''t until his self-titled CD in 1994 that he seemed to make peace with what he knew, at some level, from that day when Taj Mahal came to his high school.
"I always felt that show was for me," says Moore. "I always felt that show when Taj Mahal came, everybody (at school) came, but I always thought he came to the school just for me.
"[But] I wanted to be hip. I was afraid, which was indicative of my life for the next 20 years," he says.
Now 45, Moore spent much of the last two decades shifting from project to project, hoping to find his niche in the music business but never finding the right fit.
By the time he was in high school, he was already learning guitar and playing in bands. At 21, he seemed to catch a lucky break when the late violinist Papa John Creach happened to catch a rehearsal by Moore and his band. Creach liked what he heard and hired the group on the spot.
Over the next three years, Moore played on three of Creach''s solo records and performed on arena bills with such acts as Jefferson Starship, Loggins & Messina and John McLaughlin''s Mahavishnu Orchestra.
In 1980, he landed a record deal with a subsidiary of Casablanca Records, Chocolate City.
It was not an auspicious beginning. Casablanca was on its last legs as a label, and the album--which has been described as encompassing rhythm and blues, funk, reggae and disco--bombed. Moore blames himself for part of the result.
"Along about that time I had voice troubles during those years, during ''79," Moore says. "I developed a nodule on my vocal chord and had to go into surgery and get it removed. That record was done right after that. It was one of the worst times in my musical career, where I was probably the least confident. I wasn''t surrounded by people who were being real nurturing to me. I had my band I was working with and I let them take my band away. Then studio musicians came in to record when my band was just fine. But I fell into the Hollywood trap of ''OK we''re going to make you a record now. Stand back, boy, we''re going to make you a record.'' I stood back and I didn''t speak up. And about midway through the recording process, I lost my esteem. I just finished the record, just because I didn''t like the way it was going. So in a sense, the record failed somewhere in the middle of it. I remember the point where I let go. I just let it go."
After the failure of the album, which was called Rainmaker, Moore returned to the Los Angeles club scene. He had a variety of gigs, some good (such as a stint in a group led by Monk Higgins that frequently had top blues stars such as Big Joe Turner and Albert Collins stop by and sit in on sets), others not nearly as noteworthy.
By the late 1980s, Moore still hadn''t found his focus, but he stuck with music, taking odd jobs to make ends meet. Finally in 1990, things started to fall into place when he was invited to play a role as a Delta blues musician in a play called Rabbit Foot, produced by the Los Angeles Theater Center.
"The theater rehearsal is very interesting," Moore says. "It''s very different from a band rehearsal process. You have some actors around who work three or four weeks to put a play up. They want to memorize their lines. So you have a month to really dig through that music and really explore it and get into it while the actors are learning their lines. You talk about the music, you talk about the motivation of the piece, how the music relates to what you''re doing to it."
In the course of preparing for his role, Moore discovered that acoustic Delta blues was a style of music that felt natural to him.
"It was closer to the source," Moore says. "It was closer to the way back in the cotton fields. It wasn''t Chicago (to where many Delta bluesmen migrated following World War II). It was Mississippi. It was closer to the heart of where blues came from. I could feel the Delta calling."
Since then, Moore has been moving on a fast track. A cassette of his songs netted him a deal with Okeh Records, a label that was being launched by Epic Records.
His 1994 self-titled debut earned him recognition as a blues artist to watch, and his 1996 follow-up, Just Like You, cemented Moore''s stature as one of the most promising new artists in blues. That CD won the 1997 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and Moore also won W.C. Handy Awards in 1997 and 1998 as Acoustic Blues Artist Of The Year.
Slow Down, his latest album, is helping to redefine Moore''s image as an acoustic blues performer. With the exception of the solo acoustic "I''m Telling You Now" and a cover of "Love In Vain," the remaining 10 songs feature full band arrangements. Several tunes, such as "Soon As I Get Paid" and "Muddy Water," rock quite convincingly.
Slow Down has also been cited as a CD that includes several tunes (such as the rootsy pop tune "I Was Wrong" and the smooth soul ballad "I Don''t Know") that extend beyond the blues form and could allow Moore to cross over to adult contemporary radio.
"I know I''m known as an acoustic blues guy and I know I''m in that genre," he said. "I know that''s probably my best genre. Probably my best performances are in that area. [But] if I stay what I''m supposed to be, then there''s a group of people who talk about why you don''t try something else. And then when you do something else, people wonder why you don''t stay the same way. So you know, Ricky Nelson said it the best. ''You can''t please everybody so you''ve got to please yourself.''"