The good fight

Keb' Mo' makes the fat ladies get up and dance

Bluesy singer-songwriter Keb' Mo' (street vernacular for Kevin Moore) has reached critical mass with his second OKeh/Epic album, Just Like You, setting the stage for a national breakout. The tall, lanky, and just plain lovable guitarist still looks 20 years old in his baseball cap. He appears to be one of the rarest phenomena in music today--a youthful, black, acoustic blues musician. With his natural-born Mississippi moan, Keb' Mo' could have been one of the fathers of Delta blues had he been born at the turn of the century; doffing his cap, Keb' Mo' reveals the graying hairline of a 44-year-old man, paid up on a lifetime of musical dues.

"Everybody thinks I'm from Alabama or Mississippi, but I'm born and raised in L.A.," sighs Moore. He's dogged by outbursts of praise from Caucasian blues aficionados, those relieved to finally hear a young black man playing the historic blues now kept alive almost entirely by whites.

"That thing about young black people not listening to blues--I've been asked that question all over the world. The perception that blues reminds us of slavery and hard times, I don't want to perpetuate that notion. I know it's not true. Black people are not gonna listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan, but they're gonna listen to B.B., they're gonna listen to Little Milton or something real close to the source."

Even Moore concedes that blacks no longer listen to the traditional blues canon, from Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters. "At the same time, they're not listening to Coltrane or Miles, either. I've had many young blacks tell me, 'I don't like the blues. But I like what you're doin'.' There's a lot of blues out there, but maybe not the traditional blues black people were used to hearing. Blacks listen to Johnny Taylor, Bobby Blue Bland; the ones they embrace aren't mainstream blues artists. There's a pop market for blacks and a pop market for whites. So there's also a white market for blues and a black market for blues. We are listening to the blues, just not the blues white people listen to."

Moore's persona conjures up the father of Delta blues so much that the U.S. Post Office booked him to perform in Boulder, Colorado, for the release of the commemorative Robert Johnson stamp. ("The gig paid for a couple tanks of gas," he says.) While appearing as Guitar Man in a 1993 Dallas Theatre Center production of Spunk, Keb' Mo' was cast as Robert Johnson in a documentary, Can't You Hear the Wind Howl, appearing in fuzzy reenactments of Johnson's brief life, cut short by poisoned whiskey in 1938. Shot mostly in Dallas, where Johnson recorded, and narrated by Danny Glover, the film has yet to be released. Moore bears a striking resemblance to the two existing pictures of the mythical Delta blues icon. Moore, however, has never gotten too caught up in the Robert Johnson persona; he easily could step into the Halloween costume of Johnson's ghost, but he does not.

"The crossroads scene, meeting with the devil, was very eerie," Moore relates. "I felt like I had been to the crossroads already. Every single person, at some point in their life, has to go to the crossroads. Maybe not to meet the devil, but to stand up and acknowledge who they are. That scene reenacted the commitment I made to be a musician, through hell or high water, and accept whatever consequences came with it."

After some lean times, Moore recommitted to full-time musicianship in 1987. He knew nothing of Robert Johnson. Moore was 35, married to his first wife, and the couple had a newborn son; he had no real job, health plan, or bank account, but he still resolved not to take any work that wasn't music-related. "Ever since the day I made that musical commitment, I've never been without work," he says.

In the wake of his 1994 OKeh debut album, Keb' Mo', Moore performed at blues festivals throughout the world, appeared on network television, and toured solo nationally. Opening for Jeff Beck and Santana last August, he sang "People Get Ready" with Beck at the set finale each night. He recently relocated from Los Angeles to New Orleans. "There's some music culture I need to get. There's old stuff there that people respect. The musicians are down-home family feelin', not caught up in the L.A. hype machine."

My first Keb' Mo' encounter occurred late one night in March '93, during my weekly stint at the Winedale Tavern, a shotgun drunk-tank bar with some of the best acoustics in Dallas. Moore, ushered in by a technician from the Dallas Theatre Center, looked a young rascal in a baseball cap, hungry to play. The drinkers-at-large were poleaxed the moment Moore launched into Memphis Minnie's "Nothin' in Ramblin'." It was a classic barroom moment, when hearts are still. As the audience got warm and drunk, he broke into racial material like Big Bill Broonzy's "Black, Brown & White" ("If you're white, you're all right/If you're brown, stick around/If you're black, step back")--something that the unassuming Moore usually avoids. This led to a handful of splendid gigs shared during the next few months.

Moore was raised in Compton in South Central L.A. Then a jazz and R&B hot spot, it was a middle-class refuge for blacks fleeing the South and would later become the West Coast's rap capital, stomping grounds of Death Row Records. Moore's mother came from Texarkana, Texas, his father from a prominent land-owning family near Shreveport. As a child, Kevin sang in his church choir for about two weeks. "Then I bailed," he says. "I'm sorry I didn't get the training. But I was there listening. When I was coming up, guitar was still considered a sinful instrument in the sanctified church, where the instruments were organ and piano."

In 1980, Moore was signed to the Chocolate City subsidiary of notorious disco label Casablanca Records--then home to Donna Summer and KISS. Chocolate City released Rainmaker, "kinda [an] R&B alternative thing, with one calypso song on it. I really don't know what it was," he says of the awkward project. "At the time, it was a great disappointment, but it taught me about the temperament of the record business. Just because you make a record doesn't mean you got a shot. I blew that opportunity. I couldn't take all the negotiations. By the time I got in the studio, I was so beat up I lost confidence in my musical sense. The people around me made the record for me."

But what separates the men from the boys is an ability to keep on truckin' through lean years. A seasoned pro, Moore had no choice but to play guitar. "The toughest I had it as a musician," Moore recalls, "was having to do messenger jobs. The jobs that weren't music, that kept me humble and questioned every part of my ego. Because I was in L.A., I'd done a record, people knew me, and then I had to go delivering things. Inevitably, people are going to see you, and you just have to bite your tongue and deal with it. Now, whenever I do a gig that isn't going right--maybe the sound isn't there or something's not as professional as I like it--I think back on those times when I carried packages in a little shirt that said 'RPM Messenger Service.'"

Moore credits a 1983 stint in the Who Done It band--put together by late saxophonist Monk Higgins--as having brought him to the blues. "Monk separated the blues for me, opened up the door. He explained it wasn't just a 12-bar progression. The blues was a whole range of different feels--8-bar blues, 12-bar blues, country blues, big-city blues, Mississippi Delta blues, which evolved into Chicago blues. Muddy and Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, that first generation that came up from the farms could all play that country style, but they put it down with electric guitar, which was the new happenin' thing."

Blues was not the happenin' thing within the clubs of South Central L.A. "I was far removed from the rap people. In the beginning, when everyone was sayin', 'Man, you playin' too much blues, we're tired of hearin' blues, play somethin' else,' I just kept playin' the blues, because that's what was callin' me."

Gradually Moore nailed down weekly house band gigs and even contracted a few funerals. But his home-base gig for two years was Tuesdays at Cafe Club Fais Do-Do. According to owner Steve Yablok, Moore wrote and performed the material on Keb' Mo' there. Moore there met Georgina, his new wife and current manager. During a time when business was down at Fais Do-Do, Yablok told Moore it was getting tough to remain open. Moore ordered dinner. "He gave me a hundred-dollar check to pay for it," recalls Yablok. "He said, 'Here, this will start the flow of money back to you.' And it did."

In a tribute usually reserved for the likes of W.C. Handy, a steel sculpture of Keb' Mo' called "Buddha of the Blues" now stands by the fence outside Fais Do-Do.

Moore doesn't deal in guitar licks or flash. He knocks you out with his timing, leaving canyons of space in his playing. A keen thinker, he distinguishes genres by timing: "Texas blues, for instance, is most famous for that good ol' shuffle, with that deep lope in it, like an old washing machine."

When Moore lived in a sparse Turtle Creek apartment in 1993, during his Spunk run, he claimed to want guitar lessons from me. The opposite transpired, and I ended up his student. "You got to make the fat ladies get up and dance," he explained then. "You know you're swinging when they raise their hands."

Moore's greatest musical weapon is the neglected concept of timing. He demonstrated with a metronome, lashing out surprise silences, removing l6th notes here and there. "That's what keeps me eating in L.A.," he said at the time. "Use of time and spaces. Might be a slight difference between me and another guy, but that slight difference is an ocean apart."

"Am I Wrong," his signature slide song on the 1994 OKeh debut, utilizes those fat stops in time in which Keb' Mo' makes the empty air sing. "I didn't invent that, you know," he says. "You have to leave something to the imagination. There's a shape to the rhythm. Once you've established that swing, once you set it up, you don't have to play every single note again."

Keb' Mo's hottest set in Texas was a performance on KNON-FM 89.3 in March '93, during a spontaneous appearance on Marc Tuton's "Hot Licks" show. The skeptical DJ let Moore sing an original called "Dirty, Lowdown and Bad." Moore's voice was sublimely groggy at 9 a.m., and Tuton wouldn't let him stop singing for 90 minutes. "It's so refreshing to see a guy who isn't white playing this stuff!" exclaimed Tuton.

"All the history that I learned from the blues lets me know how far my people have come," says Moore. "I don't think young blacks are so much ashamed of blues as much as they don't yet understand it. It hasn't been presented to them the way it should be. Because when they hear a white guy sing blues, the history's not there."

According to Moore, executives at Sony in New York one day decided to start a blues label, OKeh/Epic. "Mine was the first tape they liked," he says. Moore must have worn his baseball cap when the bigwigs called him in. If they knew he was 40, he suggests, he'd probably not have been signed. But then, the blues--by nature--has challenged the corporate obsession with youth, as companies see validity in older blues artists.

Before he was signed, Moore had the notion of recording a duet with a Compton rapper or integrating hip-hop technology with Delta blues--something perhaps only he could pull off. "Come On In My Kitchen," off of Rainmaker, comes breathtakingly close. But signing with a Sony subsidiary required his backing off a little.

"I wanted to go all the way. I'm still on a quest to do that, go different places with the blues. When you talk about breaking ground in the blues, there's a lot of tradition to break. But in the making of a record, you have a producer, a bunch of musicians all with their ideas. If you hold on too tightly, you begin to anger them."

Moore's British producer, John Porter, is in his 50s, a traditional blues producer of albums by Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, and Otis Rush. Moore's current release, Just Like You, is as mainstream as Eric Clapton's latest album. For "Standing at the Station," one of the best cuts, he tried to experiment. "I took the National Steel guitar, used a little dirt, a little clean, put a synth on it. But to blues people, a synth is sacrilegious because it's not a Hammond or a Dobro. I'm trying to make that OK. I call it 'The Good Fight.'"

The synth ended up off the track. "I love my producer," says Moore, "but when we do records, we fight 'The Good Fight.'"

Keb' Mo' plays the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth Friday, September 27.

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