Keb’ Mo’ – Oklahoma
10 songs, 41 minutes
Keb’ Mo’ holds a special place in some of our imaginations. The fantasy: What would have happened if Robert Johnson hadn’t died from poisoning in 1938 but actually time traveled to the mid-1990’s and was endowed with the ability to balance deep Delta Blues with modern pop-wise sensibility? It seems pretty clear this was Kevin Moore’s intent when he took his “Guitar Man” character out of the local LA theater scene and into the national Blues scene as Keb’ Mo’. Over the course of his prolific and consistently excellent, and multiple Grammy winning, recording career, Mo’ has honed his unique Delta lens into a deeply personal style. Light years from being a novel apparition of what could have been, Keb’ Mo’ is a master Bluesman who has truly pushed the form forward. Mo’s newest record Oklahoma feels like a culmination and a harbinger of things to come. Fully realized statements of love, loss, and personal growth are balanced with progressive commentary on the state of our country, the derisive nature of current xenophobic anti-immigration and the under-representation of racialized people in popular history. This is some deep stuff packaged in an unrelentingly catchy package.
Co-produced by Canada’s Blues professor emeritus Colin Linden and Mo’, Oklahoma is full of great songs and great performances in which guest artists augment instead of distract. Taj Mahal in full chameleon form, is unrecognizable singing backgrounds like a deep swamp Cajun and playing pumping bass on the clever ecological call to action “Don’t Throw It Away.” Robert Randolph’s clean less over-the-top than usual slide deepens the Latin funk of the title track, “Oklahoma.” This song, co-written by OK native Dara Tucker, highlights the history and struggles, light and funkiness of the Sooner State and the music digs up Mo’s past as a session funk guitarist in the 70’s and 80’s. “This is My Home” is the lovely story of two immigrants who meet in the US and make a life. The light heartbeat pump of the percussion and delicate finger picking of this moving performance is augmented by Jaci Velasquez’s background vocals. The final verse is a dramatic vulnerable moment in which Mo’ sings about his at times conflicted identities as an African American and an American. Rosanne Cash adds cred to the pounding up-temp “Put A Woman In Charge.” Although the lyrical rhyming is too obvious the message is meaningful and poignant. And, the simplicity of the repeated chorus is deceptively intricate due to the layers of harmony and staggered refrains creating a round. Album closer is a duet between Mo’ and his wife Robbie Brooks Moore, “Beautiful Music.” Again the lyricism is very obvious and overly sentimental, but the beauty and emotion of the choruses are able to just fight back the possible diabetic shock.
Keb’ Mo’ has always been highly effective at doing solo performance and often includes these on his records. Not only does he do the low down Delta thing, he takes a highly original approach to more tender, Folk oriented pieces. Right from the beginning on his self titled 1994 debut he recorded a gripping solo version of “Anybody Seen My Girl” that absolutely slays. On Oklahoma, Mo’ devastates with his original “The Way I.” A song of heartbreaking unrequited love that is pitch perfect. Keb’ has also always been highly effective at writing clever tongue in cheek romps. “I Should’ve” is one of those. This flopping Blues, lays out all the romantic should’ves and could’ves. How about that “cop with the long gun” that his lady should’ve stayed with or the waitress that was “lots of fun;” the double entendres and straight up come-ons abound.
It has been 25 years since Keb’ Mo’ released his debut. At that time, Mo’ was in his early 40’s and already a fully formed artist. With the benefit of time, popularity and opportunity to further his craft, Keb’ Mo’ has created a body of work that is significant. Like Bonnie Raitt or Robert Cray, Mo’ has figured out how to be honest, true to the Blues tradition and internationally popular. Oklahoma is a testament to the hard work and sensitivity, the reflection and evolution that drives him.