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.