I don’t know what to make of Keb’ Mo’s new album, Live & Mo’. I want so much to like it . . . and I do love listening to it, honestly I do. Still, it’s a baffling release.
I’m already a confirmed fan of Mo’s deft blend of traditional Delta blues with rock, folk, and jazz. He’s never pretended to be a blues purist, so I’m skeptical of critics who — misled by Mo’s craggy voice and the authenticity of his guitar fingering and banjo picking — pan him for “bastardizing” traditional blues. His guitar licks may channel Robert Johnson, but the lyrics are more like Jackson Browne, only funnier, with Mo’s witty take on contemporary society.
Having left the corporate monolith of Sony and landed with his own indie label, Yolabelle Records, it’s understandable that Keb’ Mo’ (a.k.a. Kevin Moore) would want to get new product out there fast. So why not whip together a quickie album, fleshing out three new tracks with a re-recording of a 15-year-old number and six live performances of older songs? As someone who already owns several of his albums, I felt cheated, but for a new listener, this career-spanning selection of songs would be a great introduction.
To me, the whole reason for a live album is to create the illusion that you’re at the gig yourself. Yet here studio tracks are interspersed with live tracks, disrupting that illusion. I’ve seen Keb’Mo’ in concert, and he’s thoroughly engaging – so why not connect with that? Instead, most of the pre- and post-song patter has been edited out, and the production quality is so seamless, you almost forget you’re hearing a live track until applause erupts at the end of a song – or doesn’t, as the case may be.
Drawn from three different albums (Live & Mo’ is his ninth release since his 1994 self-titled debut), the live tracks include the loping rock groove of “More Than One Way Home,” an affectionate look at his South L.A. childhood; the gospel-tinged folk ballad “One Friend”; and “Change,” which gives its title a double meaning by critiquing society through the eyes of a sidewalk panhandler. A warmhearted pair of love songs, “Shave Yo’ Legs” and “The Action,” both seduce with the assurance that “I love you just the way you are”; in contrast, the jazzy “Perpetual Blues Machine” scolds an ex-lover whose inner nature turned out to be cold-hearted and cruel.
If the live tracks were picked for their performance quality, presumably the studio cuts were chosen more deliberately, to bring Mo’s political platform front and center. I’m not sure that a full-band arrangement improves the first track, the re-recorded “Victims of Comfort”; his 1994 original acoustic arrangement seemed more appropriate for a song excoriating Americans for our self-indulgent pollution habits. Even more relevant to today’s headlines is the jaunty banjo-and-steel-guitar rag “Hole in the Bucket,” which plays off an old children’s song to depict a working man watching his hard-earned assets dribbling away. The same working man could also be the singer of “Government Cheese,” a funky 12-bar blues number paying tongue-in-cheek homage to the delights of a welfare diet. All irony disappears, however, when Mo’ waltzes into the misty vision of “Brand New America,” a sincere but slogan-stuffed response to Obama’s inauguration. (“I am filled with emotion as the flag is unfurled / It’s a brand new America and a brand-new world.” )
I’m guess I’m just grumbling because I'm so hungry for new Keb’ Mo’ material. He’s generally released a new album every two years, but it’s been three since his fabulous Suitcase came out in 2006. Is it so much to ask, Keb’, to get more than three new tracks? Your fans await.