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Keb Mo is a bit of a conundrum. He seems to be quite successful in the States; he records for the Sony label, he appears to play bigger venues than many blues artists, he was in Scorsese’s series of blues films a couple of years back and did some acting in the recent Honeydripper movie. He is very firmly associated with blues, albeit at the lighter end of the spectrum. He’s someone who might be taking blues into the mainstream, which I don’t regard as a bad thing. If people like Keb Mo are getting people into blues, are an avenue into it, that’s all to the good.
But Keb Mo clearly doesn’t want to be limited by being categorized as a blues artist. When I saw him in 2004 at the same venue, he introduced one of his poppier, more ballad-like original songs as something that would upset ‘the blues police’. I don’t know who those people are, not having met any of them, but he may have been coming off the back of comments from people who don’t like his poppier, more sentimental material, and would prefer him to stick with the material that could be, however loosely, described as blues-based. In which case, I’m one of those people. I’m not suggesting for a moment that he should be doing Robert Johnson songs. It’s just that I think Keb Mo’s bluesy material is up there with the very best of what’s going on at the moment. I’d like him to just do what he’s good at, because he’s very, very good at that.
So when I pitched up to see him at the Jazz Café on a sadly all too rare appearance in this country, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. He’d been acoustic the previous time, accompanied only by another guitarist. Tonight he was with full band. The place was nearer to empty than full as stage time approached. We waited for the throngs to turn up for this established artist. They didn’t. They missed one of the gigs of the year.
It was like being at a private gig. There were enough people there to stop you feeling that you should apologise to the band personally for the unaccountable lack of taste in our fine capital city. And the people who were there made more appreciative noise than a packed house often does. It made for a fine atmosphere, which Keb responded to in a relaxed and jovial manner. And from start to finish, he did what he’s very very good at.
Backed by Reggie McBride on bass, Jeff Paris on piano, organ and harp, Fran Banish on guitar and Keb’s son Kevin Moore II on drums (introduced to us with the words ‘no longer a liability, now a working member of society’), Keb was in total command and seemingly in his element. Like all the good performers, he gave off an air of being totally at ease, focused on the job at hand but casual at the same time. This comes with knowing you have total mastery over the thing that you do.
This was a band that was both nicely loose and totally on the ball, playing a small venue and enjoying themselves. They had the instinctive tightness that comes with trusting that everyone involved knows exactly what they’re doing, even if they don’t know what they’re going to do next. The set list was quickly abandoned. Keb started doing what he felt like doing next; the roadie brought on the next guitar for a number and then took it off again because Keb had changed his mind; requests from the audience were instantly done instead of the planned next number. This being the very definition of an intimate gig, we were privy to all this.
During the course of the evening, Keb went through songs from just about all of his CDs, starting with his debut album in 1994 and going up to the most recent, 2006’s Suitcase. He opened with Am I Wrong?, featuring just himself on slide resonator and his son on drums – this was a terrific, bluesy opener that packed a punch and set the tone for the rest of the set. Subsequent highlights included a slow, funky take on Slow Down, a great straight blues version of Suitcase and several up-tempo, blues-with-a-funky-edge numbers like Soon As I Get Paid, Perpetual Blues Machine, Remain Silent and Standin’ At The Station. And there were fun songs like Dangerous Mood, Paris and Shave Yo’ Legs, with Keb indulging in some audience-interacting showmanship.
The standard of musicianship on offer was definitely one for the connoisseur, but the whole set was just plain fun. As well as plenty of his trademark resonator, Keb played quite a lot of terrific lead electric guitar – real blues playing, tasteful and punchy, fluent, not flashy. He’s in the tradition, if you like, but not hamstrung by it – he’s doing his own thing. The rougher, less polished up sound of the live band made many of these live versions superior even to the recorded versions, I felt. Maybe that was just because the unadulterated live band sound in this small venue hit you right between the eyes.
So here were some fine musicians doing their job and having a ball doing it. This transmits itself to an audience, carries them along in what becomes not so much a gig as an event. It was like a band playing at a mate’s party. Not just your average band, though.
Keb and his band were one of the best examples of a blues band you could hope to see. If the ‘blues police’ turned up here undercover, they would surely not have been able to make any arrests. This was blues in a fairly loose sense. There were elements of funk, of soul and, above all, memorable songs, because Keb writes songs with melodies; some of them could even be described as catchy. It’s presumably this element that pushes him towards the mainstream; but everything in this set was underpinned by blues. And with this band, in this setting, there could be little argument that Keb Mo is basically a blues artist, and one of the best there is too.
On a night like this, there are few better places than the Jazz Café. You’re never more than about 20 feet from the artist or band, so everyone can be really up close and personal. OK, it’s standing-only downstairs, and that doesn’t suit everyone, especially if it’s crowded. But that intimacy can make gigs there really special. Ironically, the size of the audience, a bit embarrassing at the start, was a definite plus. You could even move around, and this made everyone even more relaxed. So a special event was being witnessed by a small number of loud and enthusiastic people, like-minded for the duration of the set.
When Keb Mo comes to town again, don’t miss out. This was the kind of gig that gets you through a few crappy days at work with a bit of a smile on your face.