ARTIST: Keb' Mo'
I find it a little precarious to evaluate the worth of a contemporary blues album. In a genre that gave birth to all different forms of American music and has stood steadfast through decades, what am I looking for? Am I searching for a reinvention of the genre itself? Like Buddy Guy did on Sweet Tea or R.L. Burnside on A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, am I looking for the artist to be reinvented?
Generally speaking, my ear tends to enjoy old, modern, and contemporary blues much more frequently than much of the rock music getting play on the radio nowadays. That's more of a testament to the genre of blues and its inherent natural pleasures than it is a criticism of other contemporary music. Something about blues music is just right: the pentatonic scale, the laments of unrequited love, the down-on-his-luck blues man who aches out a hopeful resolve. Something's in it—has always been in it—that works and has kept it alive, if not always in the spotlight, since its inception.
But I've wondered: what should a 2014 blues record do? What could possibly be added to the conversation that hasn't already been said? If nothing, what's the purpose of a new blues record? There are a few things that are reasonable to expect from such a record. First, can the artist sing? Gone are the days of Robert Johnson's frail voice shaking out of a scratchy recording. Regardless of the instrumental work, a contemporary blues artist ought to be able to sing, and I mean sing. Think Koko Taylor. Think Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose voice I've always thought has been underrated and under-appreciated.
Kevin Moore—whose stage name is Keb' Mo'—has this first criterion all locked up on his new record, Bluesamericana. You'd be hard pressed to find any sort of reasonable criticism of his vocal work. Like Koko Taylor, he's got a voice that's instantly recognizable. It's not that its raspy or coarse, but there's something about it that feels authentic, almost aluminum, as if he was born with a dobro in his throat. This hasn't been lost on his fellow musicians either, as he's been featured on a number of albums throughout his career, including two records with lauded jazz musician Marcus Miller. On Bluesamericana, Keb' Mo's voice shines right on through from start to finish, and he shows an admirable knowledgeable of the value of restraint. While he certainly could do so more frequently, he only briefly exhibits his full vocal range, and only at opportune times. This allows those brief moments to stand out while not taking too much focus away from the instruments themselves.
Secondly, it seems reasonable that a new blues record ought not try to reinvent the wheel of the genre, but at the same time give it a fingerprint that listeners might not necessarily expect when they press play. Keb' Mo' does this reasonably well on Bluesamericana, whether through the use of instruments we might not immediately expect to hear—such as the banjo—or with varied moods and cadences from song to song. In the first five tracks of the album, for example, you'll hear echoes of folk (the “americana” portion of the album's title), funk, rock, and jazz. Of course, the songs that result from these variations vary in quality, and not all of them inherently ask to be listened to again, but at all times the arrangement of instruments and sounds is so expertly done that it all feels natural.
Third, the lyrical content of a new blues record should make an effort to offer up a modern take on inevitably traditional blues ideas. A cheating lover, an ever-elusive financial stability, a hard-worked life: all of these things have been at the heart of the blues since it came to be. Probably the most challenging thing for this record to do is add new folds to such content. At times, it fails to do so. On “More For Your Money,” for example, we hear an attempt to add a modern flare to the old woes about money. Unfortunately, it doesn't feel authentic. On the other hand, that authenticity is all over the NOLA-inspired “Old Me Better.” While these efforts to be lyrically new aren't always successful, there's almost always an attempt to do so, and that's admirable in itself.
As someone who has spent and will continue to spend a whole lot of time listening to the blues—from Robert Petway to Albert King, from T-Model Ford to Joe Bonamassa—I enjoy Bluesamericana most when it is rooted heavily in a more traditional sound while adding subtle layers of variation that make it new. The record really falls off at the end, but there are several tracks here that fans of the blues will appreciate, both for the record's attention to history and its contemporary flashes.
"You made me a brand new man, but I like the old me better."