Keb' Mo' returns to the blues at Whitney Peak's Cargo
Not that Keb' Mo' needed any further confirmation, but he knew just how misunderstood his 2011 album, "The Reflection," had been when Grammy voters nominated the album in the best contemporary blues album category.
"That puzzled the (crap) out of me," he said in a recent phone interview. "What that told me was that creatively, I'm a trusted name in the blues, so to speak, and the record stood on its own because to get through that, the gauntlet of the blues, the listening for the Grammys, it takes a lot to get through that.
"You've got to have something with quality. So, the quality must have been good enough to where people dug it for it to end up in that category. It's a Grammy-nominated record, but that also told me that everyone misunderstood it."
Certainly if there's one thing Keb' Mo' knows, it's what a blues song sounds like. And "The Reflection" was definitively not a blues album. Instead, it was an opportunity for Keb' Mo' – aka Kevin Moore -- to explore a side of his music that had only surfaced here and there before -- his taste for sleek R&B and soul.
To say that wasn't what many Keb' Mo' fans expected – or wanted - would be stating the obvious. Even going into "The Reckoning" project, Moore anticipated he'd have to deal with some mixed reactions.
"I knew in making a record like that, there were going to be some people going 'What's This?!'" Moore said. "But you know, I make the records for me so that I'm clearly satisfied. I can't just cater to my audience to the point that I throw myself under the creative bus."
And Moore's expectations played out as his blues audience seemingly was as befuddled by "The Reflection" as Moore was with the Grammy nomination.
"It just wasn't familiar to them," Moore said. "They just didn't know what to do with it.
"All of a sudden I bring this, I don't know what … Kool and the Gang vibe," he said, laughing at the thought. "Not Kool and the Gang, but an R&B vibe, and everything's really slick and very premeditated or just whatever. People that never heard me, and they suddenly heard that record, they really liked it."
Moore probably hasn't had to deal that sort of confusion with his follow-up album, "BLUESAmericana," which was released in April 2014.
"It's back on the Keb' Mo' - the Keb' Mo' that everybody knows, even though 'The Reflection' is a Keb' Mo' path, too," he said. "But this one is more like the path that everyone knows."
The current album (which was nominated, coincidentally, for a Grammy in February in the Best Americana Album category), is largely acoustic blues, but has some other feels as well.
"There's still some very acoustic stuff on it. But it kind of started rocking a little bit, too," Moore said. "The acoustic guitar leads, the acoustic leads on everything, it does lead, because I started each track with an acoustic instrument. Like the way I cut the record, I decided on my tempo, and I got my tempo right. Then I laid down a vocal with my guitar."
Getting the vocal and drum track recorded before adding other instruments to the tracks allowed Moore to do a better job of making sure the completed tracks reached their full potential.
"A lot of times when I'd be doing tracks before, I found that if I was singing on the track that the track would go down in a different kind of way," Moore said. "While I was singing, a lot of stuff would get by me, because I was singing and getting this vibe.
"But I couldn't get the detail that I wanted in the track from the musicians because I couldn't really watch it very carefully. So what I did was I put one guitar down and the drums, made sure the drums and that vocal were tight and working together. Then I'd go back and put a bass on. So I built the record like that. Each track, that's how I did it."
With its mix of acoustic-centric blues and some more up-tempo material, "BLUESAmericana" lines up with the sound that first earned him recognition and praise.
A native of Los Angeles, Moore was introduced to blues in the 1980s when joined a group founded by producer Monk Higgins called the Whodunit Band. That knowledge came in handy when in 1990 he got a key break.
Moore was invited to portray a musician playing Delta blues music in a play produced by the Los Angeles Theater Center called "Rabbit Foot." The role enabled him to delve into the acoustic Delta blues of artists like Big Bill Broonzy and Mississippi John Hurt.
Soon he was starting to write songs influenced by those and other Delta bluesmen (including Robert Johnson). Signed to Epic Records, which was reviving its blues-oriented Okeh imprint, Moore's self-titled debut, released in 1994, earned strong reviews for its back-to-basics, largely solo acoustic blues sound and its sharply crafted tunes.
Since then, Moore has gradually expanded his sound, incorporating a full band on CDs such as the Grammy-winning 1996 release "Just Like You," "Slow Down" (a 1998 release that also won a Grammy), "The Door" (2000) and "Keep It Simple" (2004) - all without losing the acoustic blues foundation in his sound.
This story originally appeared in RGJ Media's Best Bets section, which publishes every Thursday.