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CD Review: Keb’ Mo’, Peace… Back By Popular Demand

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Keb’ Mo’ has always been an understated singer, more country blues than Chicago, more Charles Brown than James Brown. Since there’s little room for blues shouters on the radio these days, even on specialty programming, Keb’ Mo’s style enables him to find a place in today’s pop(ular) consciousness, and that’s a tough thing to do without compromising artistic integrity. More power to artists like Keb’ Mo’ who can do it.

Given the political situation, it’s perfect timing to put out a collection of songs about peace. They’re not blues songs, but (mostly) well-known soul and hippie hymns. Keb’ Mo’ treats them lovingly. We need to hear them, and we need to hear people like him sing them.

Because these renditions sometimes flirt with the line between easygoing and “easy listening,” the soul tunes, like “Wake Up Everybody” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Happening Brother,” tend to sound a bit pedestrian. It’s the rock and folk anthems that make this album musically interesting. To them the singer adds something significant of his own.

“For What It’s Worth” may be the best of all these. The Al Green-style arrangement keeps the intensity of the Buffalo Springfield original while using gentle gospel flavors to emphasize the spiritual side of the peace movement from which it arose. The same can be said of Keb’s feel-good version of “People Got to Be Free.” And you can’t fail to tap your feet to his softly funked-up version of the Youngbloods’ classic “Get Together,” with its exquisite melody intact and a gospel choir added. Keb’s voice is perfect for this tune.

The CD’s one original, the folky “Talk,” prays for communication among nations and families. The naive sentiment is refreshing in these evil days. It was co-written by the noted Chinese-American singer-songwriter Kevin So, in whose band I play bass. (I mention this by way of full disclosure, since I might be biased regarding this particular song…) Also in the folk vein is a cerebral, art-song account of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” It’s the most unusual treatment on this album, and a high point.

“Someday We’ll All Be Free” is right on message, but it was never one of soul music’s best freedom songs. In it Keb returns to his soul groove, with, again, a result that’s too plain-vanilla. (I will say, however, that it’s better than the Alicia Keys version.) Then he turns around and gives “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” an Americana treatment, complete with fiddle and mandolin, but over an r&b beat. The combination works nicely. Keb’s notes indicate that he wasn’t familiar with the song before it was suggested to him for this collection, proving that every one of us will always have something left to learn.

The CD closes appropriately, with John Lennon’s “Imagine,” in a rendition that’s a little sleepy for my taste. But through its ups and downs, the album makes a powerful, if characteristically understated, contribution to the voice of reason and love, and it always convinces.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • Eric Olsen

    excellent review Jon, and that’s super cool about your personal relationship with the So song! Song is a very appropriate place to express the verities, which might sound simplistic and platitudinous elsewhere. Thanks!

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    very cool.

    Kevin So is an underappreciated artist on the folk scene.

    plus, “Standing In The Shadow of Ellis Paul” is a crackup.

  • http://www.tude.com/ Hal Pawluk

    Great review. I’m intensely into blues, but have seldom been able to connect with anything Keb Mo’ has done.

    Technically he’s usually better than good but I just don’t get any heart out of his stuff.

  • http://www.jonsobel.com Jon Sobel

    I understand that reaction – Keb’ Mo’ was promoted as sort of the “new face of the blues” in the 90s, which led people to expect him to be something he was not.

  • http://calblog.com Justene

    This review was chosen for Advance.net. You will be able to find it on newspaper sites including Cleveland.com.

  • Sandra Smallson

    Keb Mo’s best song is “Rainmaker” . If there is any other song of note he’s done, my memory fails me. Just my opinion.