Blues With a Twist
Keb' Mo' is a different kind of bluesman
By Alan Sculley

Keb' Mo' takes a step back while opening another 'Door.'

When he arrived on the national blues scene with his self-titled 1994 CD, Keb' Mo' became immediately known for breathing new life into the acoustic blues style. Though it had songs that featured accompaniment from other instruments, the Keb' Mo' CD clearly established the bluesman as an artist building on what acoustic-oriented artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Taj Mahal had done before him.

Gradually, though, Keb' Mo' (his real name is Kevin Moore) has built on the acoustic blues foundation. And by the time his third CD was released, the 1998 Slow Down, he had expanded considerably on the acoustic sound.

Mo's latest CD, The Door, though, finds the singer-songwriter taking a step back toward his roots. To be sure, there are plenty of songs with full-band accompaniment, such as the funky gospel-informed "Stand Up (And Be Strong)" and the gentle pop-tinged ballad "Come On Back." But the new CD is perhaps more defined by songs like "Loola Loo," "Anyway" and "The Door," which, even though they include some additional instrumentation, are centered around Mo's vocals and his acoustic guitar.

For the Philadelphia-based singer-guitarist, The Door promises to build on an impressive run that has seen his second and third CDs (1996's Just Like You and 1998's Slow Down) both capture Grammy awards for best contemporary blues artist.

That Mo' would succeed so impressively so fast after emerging on the national scene is remarkable considering the meandering path Mo' followed for much of his career.

In 1973, he made his first inroads at age 21 when Papa John Creach, the late violinist who recorded with Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship, happened to stop by a rehearsal space where Mo's current band was rehearsing. Creach liked what he heard and hired the group on the spot.

But it wasn't until 1990 that things started to fall into place. That's when Mo' was invited to play a role as a musician playing Delta blues music in a play produced by the Los Angeles Theater Center called Rabbit Foot. The role gave Mo' the opportunity to delve further into the music of such acoustic Delta blues artists as Big Bill Broonzy and Mississippi John Hurt.

After a couple of years of studying the style and exploring his own writing and performing talents, Mo' landed a record deal with OKeh Records, a longtime blues label that was being revived by Epic Records.

His career has been on a fast track ever since. And the collaborators on The Door are a good indication of just how much respect Mo' had earned over the course of just three solo CDs.

For starters, the CD is co-produced by Russ Titleman, the high-profile veteran who has worked with Eric Clapton, Paul Simon and James Taylor.

"I was never really anxious to work with a producer because it can create problems," Mo' said. "You got this very delicate thing, because you let someone into a very intimate part of making your record. It's a representation that people are going to listen to, what they're going to perceive as who you are. And I have a lot of studio chops and I was experienced, so I'm very comfortable on my own in a studio. So bringing in Russ, we talked for about a year. I probably didn't really make the decision right until it was time to make the record because I wanted to make sure I was vibing with him."

The music on The Door makes it clear that Mo' and Titleman vibed quite beautifully. The lowdown swing of the title song works wonderfully with the spare instrumentation applied to this soulful, bluesy track. On "Don't You Know," Mo' and Titleman strike a tricky balance between grit and polish, trading backwoods banjo with the smooth tones of accordion to create a fresh bit of country blues. "It's Coming Back," a song that otherwise has an earthy soulful feel, gets an uptown accent from silky horn lines and Mo's jazzy George Benson-ish guitar solo.

One intriguing aspect of The Door is that Mo's lyrics frequently stray from standard blues themes of bad luck, bad love and tough times. Instead, songs like "Anyway" and "Don't You Know" are warmly romantic tunes that celebrate the thrill of love.

Mo' said one reason his lyrics sometimes don't follow the standard rules of blues is that he approaches music as a songwriter first, without much regard to genre or style.

"Blues is a genre, like country is a genre," Mo' said. "Songs are just the songs. I mean, you can do a blues version of 'The Way We Were.' All you do is just take the chords and change, decorate it differently, sing it differently. I took that tip from country. Country songs have been crossing genres from country to pop to rock for years. Because they're just songs. The song doesn't make any difference to whether it's jazz or whatever. I'm from the school of get the song first."