KEB’ MO’ / “The Times They Are A Changin’ “
Source: Peace... Back By Popular Demand (Okeh - 2004)
I just think of myself as a musician. Unfortunately, we all need some kind of category to put our record in the store. And part of creativity is finding a way to get your message heard. For me, the blues put everything together, it was like the missing link. ‘Cause I was always a nondescript kind of musician. I mean, imagine me without the blues—I’m pretty nondescript, you know what I mean? It’s like, ‘What do you do with him? He’s not urban contemporary, he’s not folk.’ When I found the blues, and I just honestly liked the blues, it automatically put this category there without me even knowing it. But that category is just a category; you’ve got to read between the lines to get what it’s really about. And people do get it.
Like a bunch of other peoples, I took to Keb’ Mo’ behind Keb’ Mo’, his 1994 album on Okeh Records (Epic). He had an earlier record in 1980 under his birth name Kevin Moore. That record was called Rainmaker and ain’t did much of nothing as far as the cash register go. My man almost took to giving it up behind the dearth of demand for what was supposed to be his ticket to the big time.
Look, Kevin is from South Central, Los Angeles. He was raised up in Compton. Born on October 3, 1951. By the time his debut major release goes gold and he wins a 1997 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album and becomes a hot item and his career starts to take off, he’s over forty years old; in fact, he’s pushing fifty! Now if it takes you forty-some long-ass years to make it in the music business, no doubt you got a bunch of hard-ass, hard-luck songs to shout about.
I was like, ‘I’m sick and tired of this, I’m just gonna get out of here, go to some club and play the blues.’ To me, in my head, playing the blues was giving up. But what ended up happening was that gave me an anchor, to nail something down for myself. Lesson is, sometimes you’ve just got to get out of your own way.
Here this boy was going country blues when he come out of the concrete just down the hills from Hollywood and yet, no doubt, my man sound so authentic, like he got to kick the door sill when he enters the room just to shake the road dust off his walking shoes.
This is a cat who started out playing trumpet and French horn when he was in high school. Played in all sorts of bands—one early gig was playing stand-up bass and steel drum (that’s right, steel drum) in a calypso band. But he also had what they call “aspirations.” The other thing he had was a realistic appraisal of his assets. He knew his songwriting talent was stronger than his guitar playing. He also knew there was a career to be made in a lot of different phases of the industry, and since he wasn’t about to be a teenage heart-throb idol, he got busy doing something he could do.
Typical of them old blues cats that did whatever they had to do when they wasn’t hugged up on a guitar, a bottle beside them on somebody’s porch somewhere in parts of Mississippi where the only thing exotic was the place’s name (which could have been something far away—I mean the name evoked someplace far away, a place you wanted to be, a place named something like “Zion, Mississippi” or “Cleveland, Mississippi” or more appropriately it could have been truly odd-sounding like “Midnight, Mississippi.” And if you not from Mississippi, you might think I’m making them names up but I ain’t.
So anyway, Keb’ Mo’ tried out for a part. They needed a blues musician to play the legendary Robert Johnson in a play called Rabbit Foot, so he go to listening kind of close to Robert Johnson records figuring that he could get it down good enough to get the part, except everything that sounds simple ain’t necessarily easy to do.
Keb’ Mo’ had no idea how Robert had tuned his guitar but Keb’ Mo’ admits with a smile “I lied, so I had to go learn how to do it real fast. I started with ‘Travelin’ Riverside Blues,’ and then it was all the slide things, because I really didn’t know how to play slide so I had to figure out the tuning. I was doing the guitar to a G tuning and it was wrong—it was a G tuning but it wasn’t the G tuning he used.”
So, at age 39, my man had to go and find a teacher. He did. And he got the part in the 1990 theatrical production. Moreover, since that time he has gone on to make a semi-career of being a contemporary stand-in for Robert Johnson, even starring in the 1997 documentary Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl? The Life And Music Of Robert Johnson. Just depends on how bad you want it and how much energy you willing to expend to get it—also depends on having some talent, but a lot of folk got talent. The key to Keb’ Mo’ is that he figured he really wanted to do music and studied up on what paths were worth his walking and made sure he had the toll cost in his back pocket. In other words, he prepared himself to be an overnight success—prepared for like twenty-some years!
Anyway, I keep getting side-tracked when this is really supposed to be about Keb’ Mo’ covers of other people’s songs. Next week I’ll get down with Keb’ Mo’s own songs. He is more accomplished than most at putting lyrics to feelings and writing for specific purposes. We’ll dip a toe in all that next week but for now let’s follow the road he followed in establishing himself, i.e. we’ll start with a couple of Robert Johnson songs and end up with some contemporary songs he has shaped up in a blues fashion.
Exhibits number 1 and 3 are two Robert Johnson songs: “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Love In Vain.” They are done in contradictory ways. “Kitchen” (from 1994′s Keb’ Mo’) benefits from all kinds of modern touches in both the playing and the engineering. This kitchen is a long, long ways from the back wall of a one-room country shack. Got all kinds of modern equipment in it but it’s still a kitchen and the seduction line of offering shelter from the storm is no less effective.
Now “Love In Vain” (from 1998′s Slow Down) is done up with just voice and guitar. The guitar is miked real close, you can hear the strings striking and resonating on the fretboard on certain notes and at the end when Keb’ rares back in the chair or something, you can hear it like as if you was sitting up next to him.
“It Hurts Me Too” (from 2000′s The Door) is a song that calls to mind my childhood being schooled in the blues by the osmosis of growing up where blues was played on the radio and down the street and around the corner and when I was going door to door doing voter registration trying to help my people figure out the registration form. Invariably, a blues song was going loud and strong in the foreground.
My reference was Elmore James who had a big hit (big in blues terms at that time) in 1957 but was really written by Tampa Red in 1940. It would be the sixties before I was familiar with Tampa Red music and by then Elmore was stuck in my ear. All of that notwithstanding I just go to grinning when I hear this song cause most everybody at one time or another has been caught up with having their heart set on somebody who has their heart set on somebody else and the else person treated the object of one’s affection like they were non-existent. One big circle of misery. This is the soundtrack.
In 2001 Keb’ Mo’ did a children’s album that might more appropriately be thought of as a family album. It’s called Big Wide Grin and two of the songs on it are featured here. I like the simple sincerity of “Color Him Father” and absolutely love the jazz take on Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” On both songs, Keb’ Mo’ manages to make it sound like he wrote them. Beautiful.
In 2004, most of the country was trying to get rid of George Bush. (Yeah, I believe the election was rigged but that’s another story.) During this period lots of people stepped up to the plate to identify themselves politically. Keb’ Mo’ was in that number with an album called Peace…Back By Popular Demand. It’s a hell of an album with a really modern R&B sound. The acoustic guitar touches are still very much present but there are horns and backing vocals and interesting arrangements. So we get “For What It’s Worth,” “People Gotta Be Free,” and a really slamming version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Happening Brother” that manages to sound totally different and yet evocative at the same time. Makes me wish Keb’ had done all the songs on What’s Going On.
The tour de forces are Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin’” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” With just piano accompaniment.
“Times” sounds like Keb’ Mo’ was in church and the preacher had called him up to offer a rendition and Keb’ had simply whispered “Times A Changin’” in the pianist’s ear and stood beside the instrument and just kind of threw his head back, closed his eyes and sang what was on his heart.
We did a thing on “Imagine” before and Keb’s version was included then. My prior description bears reiteration: Keb’ Mo’ is about as unembellished as it comes in his singing, but there is a certain something in his voice that I find compelling. He does little things, slight grace notes at the ends of phrases, sure-footed micro-syncopations in his timing, and that utter lack of showing off that plain-spoken men bring to their music, an up-frontness that encourages you to accept their sincerity.
Next week, we’ll get into a batch of Keb’ Mo’ originals.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
The working man’s blues singer
I love Keb’ Mo’ for exactly the reasons Kalamu states at the end of his writeup. Because Keb’s singing is unembellished yet certain. Because he does the little things right. And most of all, because of his utter lack of showing off. A lot of the music I listen to (including this week’s Classic selections by Teena Marie) is by artists who are so prodigiously talented, that they wind up “showing off” even when they’re not trying to. Their gifts are so significant, it’s hard to miss.
Keb’ Mo’ is more like the working man’s blues singer. He gives you the feeling that he’s just an ordinary guy, that anyone could do what he does. Some of that is genuine. The truth is, he isn’t the world’s greatest singer, the world’s greatest songwriter or the world’s greatest guitar player. But the rest of the truth is, Keb’ Mo’ is very self-deprecating and humble to a fault. Dude may not be the greatest, but he’s far, far from ordinary. I love many, many of his records, usually because they give me a good, solid feeling of normal, everyday happiness. That feeling is in short supply.
Oddly enough, in being an “ordinary guy,” Keb’ is anything but. There really aren’t many artists at all who’ve managed to carve out a lengthy and viable career for themselves in the entertainment industry while maintaining a “normal” image.
Plus, as I’m sitting here re-listening to Keb’s version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Happening, Brother,” I’m hearing how gorgeous the arrangement is. This isn’t a simple remake; Keb didn’t just re-sing and re-play Marvin’s music. The same goes for “Come On In My Kitchen.” I’ve heard any number of versions of the Robert Johnson classic, but I’ve never heard one with an arrangement anything like Keb’ Mo’s. He did a country blues tune as a slinky, sneaky, funky kind of thing. It’s the same story with modern city blues take on “It Hurts Me Too” and the gently swinging cover of “Isn’t She Lovely.” Keb’ can call himself ordinary all he wants, but the way he takes these well known songs and then re-arranges and re-plays them so that they come off like compositions of his own, done in his own personal style, that’s something I have to call extraordinary. And we haven’t even gotten to his originals yet. I’m already looking forward to next week.
—Mtume ya Salaam
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