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Music Review: Keb’Mo’ – Live & Mo’

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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.

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About Holly Hughes

  • Pedro

    One fact you got wrong is that this is not a quickie album. Keb’ Mo’ did his last album for Sony in 2006.

    I will agree that I wish there were more tracks. But I disagree with the review itself. The album is not called Keb’ Mo’ Live, but Live & Mo’. Just by looking at the songs he chose, it’s clear that not only he wanted the songs to flow but also to set an overall tone.

    Every one of his albums is filler free and you can just play from beginning to end without skipping a song! How many more artist have that ?

  • Holly A Hughes

    I got my facts wrong? Read a little more carefully. I never said that it was called Keb’ Mo’ Live — in fact, the very hybrid nature of it is what baffles me. And by “quickie album” I did not imply that it came out quickly on the heels of his last (I noted in the review that it has been three years), just that it doesn’t seem to represent the huge creative effort that a totally original album would have.

    You know what? I love Keb’ Mo’. Said that several times in the review. I love him so much that I’m holding him to higher standards, and this particular release disappointed me. Yes, the tracks flow into each other, and each one on its own is a wonderful thing. But I don’t really think that this is a major new Keb’ Mo’ release and my business as a reviewer is to explain that to listeners. When I write a truly negative review of Keb’ Mo’ as an artist, then you can rush in and defend him.

    I’m guessing the label change is the salient fact here. Perhaps Keb’ wanted to find a way to get some of his old Sony material onto his new label and will move forward from here with fresh material. I am waiting for this with GREAT anticipation.

  • Pedro

    I agree that it doesn’t represent a huge creative effort. But I still feel you are reviewing it more as a live album than a hybrid one. To each his own I guess. I always listen to this album straight from track 1 to 10 and it’s some of the most rewarding 40 minutes of music to me. As a matter of fact I would have paid $10 just for the live version of “The Action”.