Keb’ Mo’ be­lieves the truth of the blues

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

English Ro­man­tic poet John Keats once wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That's all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”

Singer, gui­tarist, and song­writer Keb' Mo' — short for Kevin Moore — might just say the same about the blues, mu­sic to which he has de­voted his ca­reer.

“A lot of things have on­go­ing ap­peal, but for the blues it's the truth of the mu­sic,” says Mo'. “Truth sticks out no mat­ter what you do, and you can't have a good blues song with­out the truth.

“You're say­ing some­thing in that 12-bar for­mat and it's fun,” he adds.

Mo' will ap­pear with blues­man Taj Ma­hal and the Ta­jmo Band Sept. 12 at Milwaukee's Pabst Theater. The group Black Pa­cific, com­posed of Ma­hal's chil­dren who were born in Hawaii, opens the show.

‘LIV­ING LINK’

Mo', 65, has been play­ing the blues since 1980, and Ma­hal, 75, for longer than that.

Mo' traces his mu­si­cal in­flu­ences back to some of the great blues­men in the mu­sic's his­tory, as well as some con­tem­po­rary mu­si­cians.

He's been called a “liv­ing link” to the sem­i­nal Mis­sis­sippi Delta blues that be­came the mu­si­cal heart­beat of Amer­ica. His post-mod­ern blues style has been in­flu­enced by jazz, rock, folk and other gen­res, while built on a foun­da­tion of both gospel and tra­di­tional acous­tic blues.

“I would say that B.B. King, Muddy Wa­ters, Tampa Red, Taj Ma­hal and Robert Johnson all had a great ef­fect on my mu­sic,” Mo' says. “Howlin' Wolf is prob­a­bly the daddy of all the blues­men. He is the epit­ome, he's un­de­ni­able.”

Early on, Mo' — a na­tive of Comp­ton, Cal­i­for­nia — jammed with blues le­gends Al­bert Collins and Big Joe Turner, and he also re­ceived his first gold record for the song “Git Fid­dler” that ap­peared on the Jef­fer­son Star­ship's 1975 al­bum Red Oc­to­pus. He has per­formed with Bon­nie Raitt and Jack­son Browne, with Elmo and Ker­mit the Frog on Sesame Street, and at the Obama White House with a host of other blues per­form­ers.

Mo' also has won three Grammy Awards and one W.C. Handy Award for best coun­try/acous­tic blues al­bum in 1995. Early acous­tic blues artists, as well as bet­ter­known con­tem­po­rary elec­tric play­ers, have had some of the great­est im­pact on his style, Mo' says.

AND THE DEVIL SAID NO

Robert Johnson — one of Mo's in­flu­ences — was only 27 when he died in 1938, but his mas­tery of the Delta blues-style in­spired gen­er­a­tions of mu­si­cians.

“Robert Johnson just keeps on,” Mo' says. “I don't know what it is about him, but some­thing about his spirit in­spires me to be more cre­ative.”

Leg­end has it that Johnson met with the devil at a Mis­sis­sippi cross­roads and sold his soul in ex­change for his prodi­gious singing, song­writ­ing and guitar-play­ing tal­ent. Mo' chuck­les at the thought of such a ca­reer move.

“You know, I tried to sell my soul to the devil once and he wouldn't take it,” he says, with a laugh. “I see Robert Johnson as pure in­spi­ra­tion.”

BLUES ‘A BEAU­TI­FUL THING’

Mo' looks to the blues and other sources when he's writ­ing songs. It's a process, he says, that comes from within, along with in­spi­ra­tion from out­side sources.

“I look for a sub­ject that's near and dear to me or to so­ci­ety, then I do my best to put a song to­gether that res­onates and makes a point,” Mo' says. “It's all from the per­spec­tive of my truth. Find that, along with a good beat, and you have a song.”

As for his co-per­former Taj Ma­hal, Mo' says they learn some­thing from each other with each per­for­mance.

“Taj is a walk­ing en­cy­clo­pe­dia of knowl­edge and he speaks sev­eral lan­guages,” Mo' says. “If there were such a thing as a bach­e­lor's of the blues, Taj would be it.”

Such a de­gree would be ben­e­fi­cial, Mo' adds, not only for blues per­form­ers, but for the mu­sic's myr­iad fans.

“Blues tells the story of our coun­try, of the African-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence and how it be­came the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence and, ul­ti­mately, the world ex­pe­ri­ence,” Mo' says. “It's one of our en­dur­ing art forms, along with jazz and Nor­man Rock­well paint­ings.

“We paid dearly for it,” he adds, “but in the end it's a beau­ti­ful thing.”

ON STAGE

Ta­jmo, fea­tur­ing Taj Ma­hal and Keb' Mo', takes the stage Sept. 12 at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Tick­ets are $45 to $55. Call the box of­fice at 414-286-3663 or go online at pab­stthe­ater.org/events/

Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Ma­hal are tour­ing to­gether, per­form­ing as Ta­jmo.

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