Music is a mirror
Grammy-winner Keb’ Mo’ reflects on the blues, performing and interviews
Chico, CA 95929
Suppose you’re a young guy who loves music above all else, listens to it and plays it every chance you get. You dream of making a living doing the thing you love so much, garnering all you can from the men and women who preceded you, those who made you ache to do what they had done. Suppose you practice your guitar until you’ve developed calluses on your fingers, and you listen to old records until the grooves wear out. Suppose your desire and dedication begins to pay off. You get paid gigs, and then a record contract, and then you’re on stages doing the thing you set out to do. You’re as happy as you’d imagined you’d be, joyful, in fact, that you achieved the life so many dream of, but so few get to live.
But there are flies in this buttermilk. There are long weeks on the road, and the ritual of speaking to fans and journalists, explaining the meaning of things you never thought much about because you assumed the music would speak for itself.
These thoughts came to mind as I was on the phone with Keb’ Mo’ a couple weeks ago. He was in Nashville, just back from a European tour and about to head out for a handful of West Coast dates, including a stop at Chico’s Laxson Auditorium Friday, Dec. 2. I was one of several phone interviews his publicist had lined up.
How tiresome is that? I wondered.
“It’s something you don’t really know about when you start doing music,” he said. “Then you find out you’re going to be talking to journalists. ‘You mean I’m going to be doing this all the time?’ you think to yourself. And you are.”
Do some questions get particularly tiresome?
“Sometimes I’m asked to define the blues,” he said. “I don’t like to define things I have no definition for. I play the blues; it’s other people’s job to describe it. But you can’t divorce yourself from the world and not talk about things. I just love making music, and if I had my life to live over again, I’d do the same damn thing I’m doing now, interviews included.”
There’s no mellower blues voice than the one Keb’ Mo’ uses to carry on one of America’s richest musical traditions. From his first album, released under his real name, Kevin Moore, right up to The Reflection, his latest effort, Keb’ Mo’ has carried the torch, that flame lit down at the crossroads near Clarksdale, Miss., burning fuel gathered from slave ships, cotton fields, and too many mornings that dawned hard after too many nights that went bad.
I asked him if performances become a blur after so many nights in so many venues.
“For me,” he said, “I’m mostly in the moment. If there’s a bad show—and there have been a few—I always figure it was me. Mostly, the shows go smoothly, but sometimes you’ll forget a line, or lose your way for a moment, and then have trouble finding it back. On nights when I’m off, no one should notice but me.”
He is a direct musical descendant of the legendary Robert Johnson, though his image is sweeter than Johnson’s.
“Robert Johnson is of a different time,” he said. “He lived with an entirely different set of circumstances. I’m kind of a softie, but when I hear the music of Robert Johnson or Howlin’ Wolf, I hear a whole generation of pain. For some audiences, it’s a little more removed, the way people overseas hear gangsta rap. When they hear it, it’s a party, but over here, on the streets, it’s for real.”
Are there any younger players he’d recommend?
“Gary Clark Jr. is my favorite new blues guy,” he said. “If you haven’t heard of him, you soon will.”
At his Chico show, he’ll be performing from a repertoire familiar to his fans, plus new stuff from 2011’s soulful The Reflection (a terrific album, by the way), along with songs from The Spirit of the Holiday, his just-released Christmas EP.
Another scribe was about to call him for yet another interview, so I asked if he had a final word?
“After all the questions are asked, the performances are done, and everything is analyzed,” he said, “my only goal is to serve the audience and be a beneficial presence on the planet.”