He may not have ultimately turned out to be an architectural designer, but Kevin Moore still has his drafting teacher in high school to partially thank for what his adult vocation turned out to be.
Moore – better known as Keb’ Mo’ these days – was a senior in high school in Compton, California back in the late 1960s. That’s when his drafting teacher suggested that he go to a school assembly to see this young bluesman by the name of Taj Mahal play and sing.
As it turns out, that had a vital impact on what Kevin Moore would do just a few years later.
“I really didn’t know just how important Taj would be to me when I first heard him. I was 17 when I first heard Taj Mahal at my high school. Then like a year-and-a-half later, a friend of mine gave me a copy of The Natch’l Blues (Taj’s second album from 1968). And I wore that one out,” Keb’ recently said. “I listened to that steady for about two years, riding around in my car. And then, I went along my way making music and Giant Steps came out (in 1969) and we all started listening to that thing, me and all my friends did.”
It would be several years on down the road, after seeing him in concert two or three more times, before Keb’ actually had the chance to meet Taj.
“Yeah, it was about 15 years later. I finally met him and then we would bump into each other on the road and I even got to open for him some in the mid-to-late ’90s. I had the chance to really talk to him then. And later after that, we kept running into each other more and more.”
One of those meetings on the road ultimately led to their pairing on TajMo.
“It was in about 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia when Taj suggested that we do something together. He probably meant get together to write a song, but I took it all the way,” laughed Keb.’ “I went crazy and we made a whole album. You can’t blame him for that … I’m probably to blame for that. He was probably just wanting to get together and jam or something like that. I said, ‘OK.’ And then we made a record.”
Even though they had never sat down and really wrote and worked up songs as a duo before, the chemistry between Keb’ and Taj was instantly undeniable and ideas started flowing left and right. Despite the fact that they were a couple of musicians that had never composed together before, the results more than speak for themselves, with both their personalities able to breathe and shine through in the end.
“Of course it changes (the approach to songwriting when working with someone else) when you have another input in there, but the goal is the same,” Keb’ said. “When I write, I have a specific message I would like to convey or a specific thing I’d like to shed a light on. That doesn’t change. When someone else comes in, they supply maybe even more input on that subject. But whether it’s one person or whether it’s 16 people writing together, the goal is the same. For me, that never changes.”
In addition to the original compositions they jointly created for TajMo, the album also features a couple of songs originally penned by other artists. Sure, there’s a version of Sleepy John Estes’ “Diving Duck Blues” (which also appeared on Taj’s 1968 debut album), but there are also songs inked by Pete Townsend and John Mayer on TajMo, which might catch some folks a bit off-guard.
First appearing on The Who’s 1975 album The Who By Numbers, “Squeeze Box” is given a fresh coat of paint by Taj and Keb.’
“We did the record bi-coastal, so we would share ideas and Taj would send songs and then I would have suggestions about certain things and if they resonated with both of us, we would do them. And I thought we needed some songs outside of the realm of who we are, and I thought “Squeeze Box” was one of those kinds of songs. I think it brought some fun and more familiarity to the record. Especially with an album that had so many songs that people had not heard before.”
Like any good blues song worth its salt, “Squeeze Box” is filled to the bursting-point with sexual double entendres coming from the brilliant mind of Townsend.
“Yeah, there’s a whole lot of double entendres in the blues and in that song. That’s a great song with great lyrics,” Keb’ said. “That song (“Squeeze Box”) and the John Mayer song (“Waiting on the World to Change”) brought something contemporary that people already knew to the record. Even though The Who song is old-school and that John Mayer song is probably 10-years-old now (“Waiting on the World to Change” is from Mayer’s 2006 album Continuum and also won a Grammy Award), they’re still contemporary songs. And over the time that we did the record, “Waiting on the World to Change” and its themes came back into play and became relevant once again. It came back, so that was kind of interesting.”
Whether they intended for those two songs to do so or not, “Squeeze Box” and “Waiting on the World to Change” might also help people that are not already blues fans ease into the genre a little bit more. After all, blues music has never really been the type of music that dominates commercial radio or is routinely found perched at the peak of The Top 40.
However, Keb’ says all that has little to do with the importance of the music itself.
”Just because it doesn’t sell as much as other stuff don’t mean it’s not at the top of the heap. Even though the blues may not always be at the top of the charts, it actually was at the top of the charts at one time with Jimmy Reed. Reed actually hit the top of the charts and a lot of people don’t know that, or they forget that,” he said. “All these songs that these artists like The Rolling Stones were doing (back in their early years) were blues songs. The blues may not have always been popular, but the blues have always been important and undeniable. I’m tooting the blues’ horn based on results, not on whatever else there may be.”
Those results have certainly long spoke for themselves.
“When I started doing the blues, people started telling me to run … to get out of there. They were telling me that I wasn’t never going to make any money playing those blues. Of course, I didn’t listen to them. And you know, I didn’t make a whole lot of money, but I did make some,” he laughed. “But I look at the impact that something has. This music is far-reaching, much farther than its financial arms and legs. I never will downplay the blues as something that’s unpopular.”
That’s why Keb’ feels that there is still room and hope that the blues as a genre will continue to grow and keeping reaching new generations of listeners on down the road.
“If you were to ask an artist like Stravinsky or Chopin if they thought there was room for classical music to expand and become more popular, they of course would say, ‘Yes.’ But you don’t get into that because you think the music you’re playing is going to become mainstream. Classical music, like the blues, like jazz and other genres that were not as popular, had a major impact on all forms of music. If you’re a musician, you have to study some jazz to understand some harmony. You have to study some classical, too. Just because some of those forms of music are not as popular as others, doesn’t mean you don’t have to at least understand some of them. I mean, I wasn’t popular in school, you know? But this blues music is like weeds. You’re trying to make your yard all nice and green and pretty and I don’t care what you do, you cannot stop weeds. And the blues is like that … you cannot stop the blues. They’re going to pop up somewhere.”
Visit Keb’s website at: http://kebmo.com/home