Not that Keb’ Mo’ needed any further confirmation, but he knew just how misunderstood his 2011 album, “The Reflection,” had been when Grammy voters, showing the same level of perception that once enabled Jethro Tull to take home the trophy in the heavy metal category, nominated “The Reflection” for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category.
“That puzzled the s*** out of me,” he said in a late January phone interview. “What that told me was that creatively, I’m a trusted name in the blues, so to speak, and the record stood on its own because to get through that, the gauntlet of the blues, the listening for the Grammys, it takes a lot to get through that. You’ve got to have something with quality, so the quality must have been good enough to where people dug it for it to end up in that category. It’s a Grammy-nominated record, but that also told me that everyone misunderstood it.”
Certainly if there’s one thing Keb’ Mo’ knows, it’s what a blues song sounds like. And “The Reflection” was definitively not a blues album. Instead, it was an opportunity for Keb’ Mo’ (real name Kevin Moore) to explore a side of his music that had only surfaced here and there before — his taste for sleek R&B and soul.
To say that wasn’t what many Keb’ Mo’ fans expected — or wanted — would be stating the obvious. Even going into “The Reflection” project, Moore anticipated he’d have to deal with some mixed reaction to the album.
“I knew in making a record like that, there were going to be some people going, ‘What’s this?’” Moore said. “But you know, I make the records for me so that I’m clearly satisfied. I can’t just cater to my audience to the point that I throw myself under the creative bus.”
And Moore’s expectations played out as his blues audience seemingly was as puzzled by “The Reflection” as Moore was with the Grammy nomination.
“It just wasn’t familiar to them,” Moore said. “They just didn’t know what to do with it. Some of the crowd has been listening to blues and know me as the old-time Robert Johnson [influenced artist].
“All of a sudden I bring this, I don’t know what, Kool and the Gang vibe,” he said, laughing at the thought, “not Kool and the Gang but an R&B vibe, and everything’s really slick and very premeditated or just whatever. People that never heard me, and they suddenly heard that record, they really liked it.”
Moore shouldn’t have to deal with any of that sort of confusion with his next album, which will be released in April.
“It’s back on the Keb’ Mo’ — the Keb’ Mo’ that everybody knows, even though ‘The Reflection’ is a Keb’ Mo’ path, too,” he said. “But this one is more like the path that everyone knows.”
From what Moore said about the new album (which will be preceded shortly by a five-song EP that includes three tracks that won’t be on the full album), it will be largely acoustic blues but will have some other feels, as well.
“There’s still some very acoustic stuff on it. But it kind of started rocking a little bit, too,” Moore said. “The acoustic-guitar leads, the acoustic leads on everything, it does lead, because I started each track with an acoustic instrument. Like the way I cut the record, I decided on my tempo, and I got my tempo right. Then I laid down a vocal with my guitar.”
Getting the vocal and drum tracks recorded before adding other instruments to the tracks allowed Moore to do a better job of making sure the completed tracks reached their full potential.
“A lot of times when I’d be doing tracks before, I found that if I was singing on the track that the track would go down in a different kind of way,” Moore said. “While I was singing, a lot of stuff would get by me because I was singing and getting this vibe. But I couldn’t get the detail that I wanted in the track from the musicians because I couldn’t really watch it very carefully. So what I did was I put one guitar down and the drums, made sure the drums and that vocal were tight and working together. Then I’d go back and put a bass on. So I built the record like that. Each track, that’s how I did it.”
With its mix of acoustic-centric blues and some more uptempo material, the new album figures to line up with the sound that first earned him recognition and praise.
A native of Los Angeles, Moore was introduced to blues in the 1980s when he joined a group founded by producer Monk Higgins called the Whodunit Band. That knowledge came in handy when in 1990 he got a key break. Moore was invited to portray a musician playing Delta blues in a play produced by the Los Angeles Theater Center called “Rabbit Foot.” The role enabled him to delve into the acoustic Delta blues of artists like Big Bill Broonzy and Mississippi John Hurt.
Soon he was starting to write songs influenced by those and other Delta bluesmen (including Robert Johnson). Signed to Epic Records, which was reviving its blues-oriented Okeh imprint, Moore’s self-titled debut, released in 1994, earned strong reviews for its back-to-basics, largely solo acoustic blues sound and its sharply crafted tunes.
Since then, Moore has gradually expanded his sound, incorporating a full band on CDs such as the Grammy-winning 1996 release “Just Like You,” “Slow Down” (a 1998 release that also won a Grammy), “The Door” (2000) and “Keep It Simple” (2004) — all without losing the acoustic blues foundation in his sound. Then came the left turn of “The Reflection.”
But with his return to blues on the horizon, fans won’t hear the slick R&B of “The Reflection” in the shows Moore is playing now as he begins a busy stretch of touring, including a stop at the Wheeler Opera House tonight.
In fact, he’s stepping back from the full-band format of recent tours and performing with only one other musician — multi-instrumentalist Tom Shinness.
“We had a six-piece for a while,” Moore said. “That was really a lot of fun. It got to be a heavy load. I work better in a small ensemble because I need the room to express what I’m doing. I really need the space. That’s something you’ve really got to come to grips with. When I’m doing a solo show, that’s the ultimate space, man. But when I put a band together, often I think they don’t understand the space that I need. Not to [criticize] any of the band members — they’re excellent musicians — but that’s a hard thing to understand sometimes. So I’m getting down to smaller pieces.”
“You know, I make the records for me so that I’m clearly satisfied. I can’t just cater to my audience to the point that I throw myself under the creative bus.”
Keb ‘ Mo’