Keb’ Mo’ believes the truth of the blues
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.
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.”
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.