The biggest casualty of the 1970s and disco was that after all the Saturday Night Fever hysteria had died down, finding a good R&B or soul track became next to impossible. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Sam Cooke, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan and others took the passion of blues and gospel music, smoothed over some of their rougher edges, emphasized rhythm slightly more then the blues, and sang about subjects not covered in church. While R&B never had the street smarts nor the overt sexuality of funk a la James Brown or Issac Hayes, it wasn’t the easy listening shit you hear passing itself off as soul or R&B on so called contemporary adult stations today.
After listening to Areatha Franklin hitting her stride in something like “Respect,” the idea of even mentioning non-entities like Hall and Oates in the same sentence as her is as close to sacrilege as you can get in the secular world. In fact only Pat Boone covering Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” stands out as a bigger abomination. So, when I first started listening to the forthcoming release from Keb’ Mo’, The Reflection, on the Yolabelle/Ryko label, it took me a couple of songs to even recognize the style of music he was playing. It’s been so long since I’ve heard R&B played and sung like it should be, I spent the first two songs trying to figure out what they reminded me of before the pieces fell into place. The elegant, almost jazz-like phrases coming from the guitar, the gently compelling rhythms, and their smooth, but not too smooth, production values make “The Whole Enchilada” and “Inside Outside” epitomize all that is great about the genre.
Of course it takes more than two tracks to make a CD, and there are a total of 12 on The Reflection. On each of them Keb’ Mo’ gives an object lesson in just what it means to sing and play R&B. What’s even more impressive is that in this era of so many singing other people’s material, he had a hand in writing ten of the twelve songs he’s performing. On top of that, not only does he handle or share lead vocals on every track, he does double, if not quadruple duty, on the majority of the tracks as he plays lead guitar on tracks one through eleven, and plays drums and electric piano on occasion as well. This would be enough to distinguish his efforts from those of others with pretences of being R&B singers, but that’s just the beginning; it’s not just what he does, it’s how he does it that makes him so special.
The hardest thing for a performer to do is to cover a song you don’t normally like, and not only manage to have you enjoying what they do with it, but also make its transformation so complete you don’t even realize what they’ve done. I’ve never been a particularly big fan of The Eagles and their sentimental version of country/rock music that swamped the air waves in the 70s, and in particular I always despised the song “One Of These Nights.” There was a time when it was a damn staple on FM stations. and I swore that if I never heard it again it would be too soon. So I don’t know what kind of magic Keb’ Mo’ wove, but he was about three quarters of the way through his cover of it before I even clued into why I thought the lyrics sounded familiar. Calling it a cover does him a disservice as he’s completely reinterpreted the song, turning it into something with infinitely more heart and soul than I could have thought possible. Instead of the facile, “oh yeah baby” sentiments of the original, he’s managed to infuse the lyrics with a sense of yearning and hope that turns the chorus into a kind of prayer.
I doubt Keb’ Mo’ had any trouble convincing any of those he worked with on this disc to collaborate with him. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has to beat people off with a stick when he puts out the word he’s working on a new recording. Listening to him sing and play is an object lesson in how this music is supposed to be, and the denying the chance to be part of that would be impossible for anybody who truly loves music. So it’s no wonder that Vince Gill not only sings and plays his trademark mandolin on this disc, he co-wrote “My Baby’s Tellin’ Lies,” the song he’s featured on, with Keb’ Mo’. Gill isn’t the only guest on the album, as India Arie joins him on vocal duties for a wonderful version of the old standard “Crush On You” and while she doesn’t sing, Melissa Manchester shares writing credits with Keb on the genuinely soulful “Walk Through Fire”.
One of the distinguishing marks of the great soul and R&B singers was the apparent effortlessness of their delivery. Keb Mo is no exception. There’s none of the histrionics you’ve come to expect from so many of the singers you hear today. However, neither does he have one of those bland, characterless voices with all the spice of processed cheese products either. When you listen to him sing you don’t only hear his lyrics–you feel the emotion behind them. For while his delivery might be as smooth as velvet, there’s a distinct edge of sandpaper to his voice that gives everything he sings a ring of truth that echoes inside of you. While there are moments on the disc where the production values might have overwhelmed a lesser singer, that roughness of tone ensures he’s able to cut through anything that might detract from the integrity of his music.
There are still a few performers out there who understand what it means to sing R&B, but far too much of what you hear being passed off as the genre have forgotten that the initials stand for Rhythm and Blues. Well some might remember what the the first initial means, the blues part–the part which gave the music its power in the first place–might as well not exist anymore. It’s only when you hear someone like Keb’ Mo’ performing that you realize how much of the heart has been cut out of the music by most people. With a foot planted firmly in each camp, and the ability to open his heart and soul to a listener through his voice, he has created some of the finest R&B you’ll have heard in ages.
While The Reflection won’t be for sale until August 2, 2011 if you pre-order it now through i-Tunes they’ll include three bonus tracks for you. Take advantage of the deal, ’cause once you hear his music you’ll agree, the mo’ Keb’ Mo’ you can get, the better.