Keb' Mo' is less a blues singer than a performer who works from that conceptual base, not in the way Taj Mahal does, knowingly carrying a tradition forward, half teacher and wise elder, but more as a populist, the James Taylor of blues, say, or a less recalcitrant J.J. Cale. To criticize him for not being Skip James or Robert Johnson sort of ...
Keb' Mo' is less a blues singer than a performer who works from that conceptual base, not in the way Taj Mahal does, knowingly carrying a tradition forward, half teacher and wise elder, but more as a populist, the James Taylor of blues, say, or a less recalcitrant J.J. Cale. To criticize him for not being Skip James or Robert Johnson sort of misses the point of what Keb' Mo' is shooting for, and like Bonnie Raitt discovered, bringing a modern pop-blues to a wide audience sure beats playing authentic for purists. Either path is as fake or as real as the other in a post-postmodern age where the blues creaks along as a single DNA strand in a world of rap, metal, and neo-soul. All of which makes the blues a strange career path to use to get straight out of Compton, yet that's exactly what Keb' Mo' has done, rising out of one of toughest urban landscapes in the world by covering Robert Johnson songs on his National steel guitar. So enough about whether he's a real bluesman or not, because in the end he has to put supper on the table, and he does it by crafting a warm, wry, blues-informed version of pop Americana that wrestles with contemporary problems like how to pay the mortgage, the high price of coffee, or how to afford a vacation in France. "France," the lead track on Keep It Simple, pretty much states the case with the lines "Wake up Mama/Don't you fret/I found two cheap tickets/On the Internet," which Keb' Mo' sings in a honey-tinged voice over a patented and tasteful blues shuffle. Later, in "House in California," he sings, "Better have good money/If you're looking for a house/In California," and again, he uses a shuffle to hang the news on, looking no further into the past than necessary to put the song across. Keb' Mo' is a solid guitar player, and is a master of the easy, nuanced vocal, and he makes like Denzel Washington on this album, commenting on the little problems and travails of contemporary life with a winning grin and an assured stance that you can't help but like. Is this a great album? No, just a good one, all of a piece with his earlier work, and his debut release, simply called Keb' Mo', is still probably your best bet for a first purchase. That's the album the critics like best because it stays closest to the Delta definition of the blues, and it is a good album, but Keb' Mo' didn't trade Compton for the Delta just to stay there. He's looking for a house in California and a plane ticket to France. Aren't we all? That's the blues, folks. ~ Steve Leggett, Rovi