It's hard to be a bluesman nowadays without having some understanding of the myths behind the music. You may not have bought a good-luck mojo like the one Muddy Waters had working, much less headed out to a country crossroads at midnight to barter your soul for musical ability, as Robert Johnson supposedly did. But if you play the blues, odds are you know the stories.
Keb' Mo', who performs at Bohager's this evening, knows more than most. A singer and guitarist whose blues-drenched sound draws on everything from the classic country blues of the 1930s to the more contemporary, funk-oriented sound, he learned the blues the old-fashioned way: "I studied up on it," he says.
"A lot of reading books that are out there. Picking up bits here and there. There are a lot of stories that are just in the air and just go around. A lot of trivia. Word-of-mouth history."
Keb' Mo' understands both the history of the blues and the world that music came from. At the same time, he's also aware that he's not living in those times or that culture. So when he evokes blues mythology in one of his songs -- as he does on "Muddy Water," the first track on his new album, "Slow Down" -- he does so with a thoroughly modern mindset.
"I went down to the crossroads," he sings. "And there ain't no devil down there."
Sacrilege? Hardly. "Well, the myth is a myth," he explains, over the phone from a tour stop in Steamboat Springs, Colo. "I think the devil is inside us, like God is inside us."
So to his mind, the whole selling-your-soul-at-the-crossroads legend is "symbolic of something else," of a musician giving himself over to a lifestyle sure to end in ruination.
But that was then, and this is now. "All those old blues songs were real life," he says. "That was going on back then. People's cows were getting sick, you know? They were dying of tuberculosis and stuff, because there wasn't no hospital, no doctor."
Modern listeners have different concerns. Credit-card bills, for instance. So Keb' Mo' stays away from topics like sick cows and T.B. and instead writes songs like "Soon As I Get Paid," in which he voices a much more contemporary lament:
Ring-a-ling with the telephone
Is the man of the house at home?
Your Mastercard is overdue
Mister Mo', we need a payment from you
Right now, right now, right away.
Between his gritty guitar work and gleeful, growling vocals, Mo' sounds like he's been singing the blues all his life. In truth, though, he's just a quick study.
"I came into blues late," he says. Born Kevin Moore in Los Angeles 46 years ago, he began his musical career crafting R&B; and pop tunes. "That's how I trained myself as a songwriter," he says.
So he wasn't the seventh son of a seventh son, born under a bad sign and raised in the Mississippi delta.
So what? Having a solid grounding in pop songwriting kept him from falling prey to the kinds of cliches that clutter much modern blues writing.
"When I came to the blues, the [pop] stuff kind of came with me," he says. "It just followed me in there. So I was able to do the blues, [take it] somewhere else and not be laughed at."
If anything, Keb' Mo's combination of songwriting smarts and instrumental ability earned him recognition and praise.
His sophomore release, "Just Like You," won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 1996, and Keb' himself has twice been named "Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year" in the annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards.
He won't be playing as an acoustic soloist on his current tour, however. "I have a bass, drum and keyboard player, and I have a guitar tech that plays some guitar with me, too," he says. Don't take that to mean he's given up the solo side of his act. "I still go out as a solo," he says. "I got two different sets of parts for all the songs. Playing it with the band, and playing it on my own."
But he likes the way working with a band enabled him to broaden the scope of his songwriting. "With the first two albums, I think maybe I bent over backwards so they could all be played solo," he says. "Then, on this third album, there's a little less attention to things being able to be played solo."
He laughs. "About half of it sounds ridiculous solo," he says. "But it could be done."
Still, there are some songs that work best without accompaniment, like his version of the Robert Johnson classic "Love in Vain." Because the song had been covered by dozens of other musicians over the years (perhaps most famously by the Rolling Stones), some of Keb' Mo's associates felt he was taking a big risk by recording it.
"But I just did it to have a version of it on hand," he says. "Just let the tape roll, did two versions, picked one, and went on.
"So rather than it being a gutsy move to record it, I think it's just a great song," he adds.
"My favorite thing about it is the setting It plops you right down there. 'And I followed her to the station ' Starting the song with an 'and' is just one of the coolest things I've ever heard in songwriting."
When: Tonight at 8
Where: Bohager's, 515 S. Eden St.
Call: 410-481-7328 for tickets, 410-653-7220 for information Sundial: To hear excerpts from Keb' Mo's new release, "Slow Down," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6190. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.
Pub Date: 8/25/98