There's something about Keb' Mo' that's reminiscent of James Taylor. Just as Taylor has always made use of folk singer/songwriter traditions without being much of a folkie himself, Mo' goes on shopping sprees through the blues catalog. He may be a savvy shopper, but no one is any longer whispering about him being a wunderkind who channels Robert Johnson. The death-knell for such hopes should be played on electric piano, a cocktail-bar instrument that shows up occasionally on Mo's new album.
But it doesn't show up too often. Neither do the touches of George Benson-style lite guitar jazz. And a songwriting collaboration with Melissa Manchester, of all people, yields a haunting adult-child plea that Mo' plays straight-up on guitar to super effect. The cover of "It Hurts Me Too" really puts the spotlight on the Mo' paradox: he makes this classic seem brand-new - no mean feat - even as a he makes it seem a bit slick.
As the title and closing track ("The Beginning") make clear, Mo' has become a reliable songwriter with an indelible hopefulness that seems odd in a bluesman, but there are regular doses of necessary toughness amid the tunefulness. He wasn't born under a bad sign; instead, he was born at just the right time to be singing for all the baby boomers who find that middle age is giving them something they'd like to feel is the blues. - T.E. Lyons
ALICE IN CHAINS
Remember back when Americans actually made good music, and we didn't have to rely on the British for the only original, thought-provoking tunes? Alice In Chains easily rocked harder than their Seattle counterparts in Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Even better, Chains lead singer Layne Staley's vampire-like appearance and scary vocals could instill fear in even the most macho person.
Modern-day rock concerts lack something - either the acts lack talent or they simply don't possess the skills to put on a lively show. Alice In Chains knew how to maintain the attention of the audience, and they played with enough passion to show they enjoyed performing. Alice In Chains Live is the perfect culmination of everything the band accomplished during its six-year touring career that lasted from 1990 until Staley's prolonged sabbatical in 1996.
Live showcases the strong rhythm section of bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney that made tunes like "Would?" and "Again" instant classics. It also features the bone-crushing guitar sound of Jerry Cantrell on raw, yet powerful, versions of "Man In The Box" and "Them Bones." Best of all, Live is a great testament to what makes Alice In Chains truly special, and that is a lead singer who doesn't attempt to imitate anyone else. Whether it be singing his own words or Cantrell's words on "Rooster," Staley put forth real meaning in his singing style.
The only downside of Live is the poor mixing treatment given to the album's last five songs. That's unfortunate too, because they were culled from the band's final two shows. - Chas J. Hartman
It's hard enough to believe that the perpetually youthful mandolin/fiddle master Sam Bush has become one of the genre's elder statesmen, let alone that he's performed at the same festival for over a quarter of a century. Bush has performed at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival more than any other artist - all but one of the festival's 27 years. The rabid "festivarians" who make the annual pilgrimage to Telluride are among the most devoted acoustic music fans on the planet, so it makes sense that Bush - who's unquestionably at his best in live performance - should choose the scenic Colorado setting for a recording of some of his feel-good favorites.
No self-respecting Bush fan wants to be without a live recording of his "Sailin' Shoes" medley, and there's a fine version here. Bush doesn't shy away from a few more standard bluegrass numbers, although Bill Monroe would no doubt roll in his grave at the sacrilegious idea of drums in a song bearing his nickname. The other usual Telluride suspects are all in fine form, with inspired performances from Jerry Douglas and former New Grass Revival bandmates Bela Fleck and John Cowan.
Anyone who wants to nitpick rather than finger-pick could easily say that a collection of '90s work doesn't document even half of Bush's collective performances at Telluride or that the lack of original material could be considered something of a major oversight, but hey, what do you think the title "Volume Two" is for? -Leslie Stewart