Keb’ Mo’s better blues, in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Keb’ Mo’s better blues, in Aspen

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Contributed photoSinger-guitarist Keb' Mo' makes his Belly Up Aspen debut Wednesday.

ASPEN – Keb’ Mo’ says he is about to begin “the next chapter” in his musical existence. The singer-guitarist says his new recording, essentially finished and tentatively due for release early next year, will head in a different direction from the handful of albums – including three Grammy winners, all in the Best Contemporary Blues Category – he has released over the past 16 years. He declines to say exactly what this new direction is, but hints that while it will be noticeable, it probably won’t be radical.”It may seem like a real new direction, but to me it’s just a different part of myself,” the 58-year-old said from Los Angeles. “Like all my previous ones, it’s in line with what I do.”In other words, the new album won’t alter the musical personality as drastically as the one that took place in 1993. That was when Kevin Moore, a skilled musician looking for an identity, became Keb’ Mo’, a stage name that gave him an instant identity. It changed everything.The name itself was significant. “Keb’ Mo’ was something different than Kevin Moore,” he said, adding that Keb’ Mo’ had actually been his previous nickname. “It made me less common. I was pretty ordinary before – maybe I wasn’t ordinary, but my name was. That changed that. Carl, from the record company – he wasn’t looking for a Kevin Moore. He wanted a Keb’ Mo’, so I said OK.”But the change went deeper than the letters that appeared on the marquee. “It started a new era in my life,” Mo’ said. “It was a renaming, a remodeling of myself. My identity was in the making; Keb’ Mo’ was the deal sealer. I got a fresh start. All my mistakes of the past, I was forgiven. All my miscalculations, definitions of who I was – all that changed.”As did the music, and the career. A musician from his childhood in South Central Los Angeles, Moore played bass and steel drums in a calypso band; recorded extensively with fiddler Papa John Creach, a former member of the Jefferson Airplane; and was a staff songwriter for A&M Records. But beginning with the 1994 breakthrough album – titled, of course, “Keb’ Mo'” – Mo’ tried on a new face. Keb’ Mo’ was a mixture of Delta bluesman – the album featured covers of two songs by seminal blues player Robert Johnson – and acoustic singer-songwriter, coming up with the observational tune “Victims of Comfort” and the lighthearted, upbeat “Tell Everybody I Know.””Keb’ Mo'” earned him notice, a place in the blues and folk realms, and a four-star review in Rolling Stone. “Just Like You,” from 1996, featured contributions from Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, who did not seem like accidental guests. Moore was aiming for a niche that was more crafted and folkie than raw blues, but which kept a connection to Delta blues. The album – which featured songs like “You Can Love Yourself” and the title track, which revealed very gentle, unbluesy sentiments – earned Mo’ his first Grammy.The albums, and the Keb’ Mo’ persona, proved irresistible to producers in film and TV. In 1998, Mo’ played Robert Johnson in the documentary “Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl”; he has gone on to act in and contribute music to numerous screen projects. His upcoming album is being held up because of his involvement with the new, music-oriented TV series “Memphis Beat,” to which he contributes songs and incidental music.On the recording side, the Keb’ Mo’ character continued to prove he wasn’t a short-lived novelty. It also proved to be an expansive persona, as Mo’ released a kids album (“Big Wide Grin,” featuring “Isn’t She Lovely” and “The Flat Fleet Floogie”) and an album of socially conscious cover tunes (2004’s “Peace … Back by Popular Demand,” with takes on “Imagine,” “People Got to Be Free” and “For What It’s Worth”).While the name change was the big game changer, Mo’ had an early experience that played an enormous role in shaping his future, laying the ground for all the music he would make. When Mo’ was 17, his school played host to a concert by Taj Mahal – the innovative, folk-leaning singer-guitarist who had once gone by Henry Saint Claire Fredericks. Mo’ was already a musician; hearing Taj Mahal gave a direction to explore.”I was very much affected,” Mo’, who wrote the brilliant song, “Henry,” in tribute, said. “I was inspired, but it took a few years to see what a big deal it was. I was still a young kid, trying to figure out what to do with myself.”Asked if the Taj Mahal encounter still played a part in his makeup, Mo’ shot back: “Absolutely.”stewart@aspentimes.com