There are few tunes in the last 20 years that hold hope as well as “Tell Everybody I Know” from Keb’ Mo’s seminal, self-titled debut.
But there was always something a little amiss on that record. Here was this affable chap, looking and sounding every bit the tenured blues man, but practically laughing out lyrics of love and joy.
Quite suddenly, in 1994, Keb’ Mo’ caught fire, adding new direction to a well-preserved, well-protected craft. The sunny delivery didn’t jive with classic blues tales of woebegone wretches, and America loved it.
When Keb’ Mo’ brings his mighty ax and bright songbook to the State Theatre in Portland on Wednesday night, it won’t be without precedent.
“I opened for The Subdudes at the old State Theatre,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I just remember enjoying this beautiful venue and the fans. Everyone I met in Portland was so friendly and down-home.”
A certain flexibility with the rules set in early on for Keb’ Mo’, whose true name is Kevin Moore. He was never bound to one style.
“My band teacher showed me how to play steel drums,” he recalled in a voice with a beautifully life-scuffed low register, “but I really got started when my Uncle Herman gave me a guitar and taught me ‘Jamaica Farewell.’ “
That this accomplished blues player began his musical journey with Caribbean folk speaks to his comfort in any genre that matches his moment in life.
“It might come out in different ways, but it’s just a need to express what’s going on in my mind with my guitar and voice,” he said.
And so, the rusty balladry in “Every Morning” from 1994 has given way to the smooth organ R&B of “Crush on You” from this year’s CD, “The Reflection.” Somehow, it still all sounds like Keb’ Mo’.
Although he was raised in Compton, Calif., Keb’ Mo’s practiced Southern-gospel charm is obvious and infectious. Even after a full career collaborating with legends such as Bobby McFerrin and Bonnie Raitt, the singer still leads with a deeply genuine humility.
So what’s a guy who’s won multiple Grammys count among his proudest accomplishments? “My family,” he said without a whiff of hesitation.
Suddenly, it’s not so hard to understand how this rhythm-and-blues phenom can so comfortably exude positivity in his sacred blues forms. The well-traveled performer has evolved gracefully for being so well-grounded at the start.
“They’ve taught me so much,” he said of his family. “They’re definitely what I love most about life.”
Mike Olcott is a freelance writer.