The good fight

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.

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Josh Alan Friedman

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