By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
Can you have sunny blues? There's no denying that on his second album, Keb' Mo' (Kevin Moore) assumes a decidedly upbeat tone, reminding the listener of Giant Step-era Taj Mahal, marrying the basic optimism of the folkie to traditional blues elements.
While Mahal dug deeper into the dirt, Mo' heads up and into the realm of pure pop and embraces big production values: background singers (and Bonnie Raitt duos) and orchestral arrangements, at times so smooth that Robert Cray's crossover songs sound like field hollers, no doubt throwing the blues purists who put Cray down for his pop compromises into conniptions.
Mo' pulls it off, managing to come off as wide-ranging where a less subtle artist might seem a calculating borrower. Like Mahal, his messages are often positive and empowering even when the situations they spring from might have been rashly entered ("Dangerous Mood," a horny uptown number). He can still pare things down, though, as he does on a Dixieland gospel version of Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down." A lot of your reaction to this album depends on the kind of standards you hold blues players to, but it's worth noting that if Keb' Mo' doesn't qualify, then Buddy Guy doesn't have a prayer.
A Ass Pocket of Whiskey
R.L. Burnside isn't the praying type, judging by the way he whoops, whistles and swears his way through A Ass Pocket Full of Whiskey. The country around northern Mississippi was too hilly for the plantation system to take hold, and African-Americans there enjoyed a unique degree of self-determination. Burnside still plays their music, in the style of Fred McDowell: repetitious, droning, and trancelike, the blues direct from an area full of dialect and isolation, walking upright, mean and primitive.
On his previous masterpiece, Too Bad Jim, Burnside relied on friends like Junior Kimbrough and his family for musical accompaniment; here, he picks up a trio of young acolytes from New York City and gets a more raw and distorted sound. The city kids do well, but R.L. obviously is pulling them along; still, they seldom fall behind. You wouldn't either, if that meant being left in Burnside's bad-eyed and bloodshot wake. Coarser than Jim, Ass Pocket may not flow quite as easily, but it captures a proud, self-defined side of the blues just as well.