Keb Mo (now without those confusing apostrophes) was in the middle of a between-songs rap when a woman began calling repeatedly for “Keep It Simple.” The artist formerly known as Kevin Moore politely suggested that he save that one for “the last song I play.” So, in the end, the woman got what she wanted. Suffice it to say that I didn’t.
Here’s what I wanted: In his introduction to “I See Love” (which became the theme song for the CBS sitcom “Mike & Molly”), Keb talked about how he and his partners like to sneak into a little club in Santa Monica on Monday nights and “get drunk and just play.” That’s the kind of show I wanted – where the Nashville native just kicked back and played his unique brand of intimate, uncomplicated, down-home blues. What I got was a brilliantly-packed, perfectly-polished performance of the kind of smoothed-out music that makes radio programmers a little more inclined to add you to the playlist.
Take the opening number, “I’m Amazing,” which comes off the disc “Keep It Simple.” The studio version’s got this really great undertone of discovery, as if it’s sung by someone who looked in the mirror one day and finally liked what he saw. The version K.M. and his five-piece back-up band served up had vocals as slick as an eel and guitar licks that hinted at rock and blues but never went further than that. It was like looking at a perfectly beautiful woman who’d gone on the Atkins Diet because she’d heard that a friend of a friend of an acquaintance had said she “looked fat.”
The vibe continued for most of Keb Mo’s two-hour set, which was a mix of older tunes and tracks from his latest release “The Reflection.” A pre-show write-up had said K.M. had been “experimenting” with pop music during the recording process; given the artificial sheen that was applied to older tracks like “Government Cheese”, “France” and “Shave Yo Legs,” it seems like he’s gotten into full-scale research! Then again, if he hadn’t averaged everything out, new tracks like “The Whole Enchilada” and “We Don’t Need It” would have stuck out like sore thumbs. He did kick it up a notch on “Perpetual Blues Machine” and “Dangerous Mood,” and an almost-all-acoustic version of “Angelina” provided the best moment of the night. Again, none of it was bad per se, and the almost-full house dug every second of it. But as a whole, Keb Mo’s set was a deadly paraphrase of David Bowie: “This ain’t rock & roll… This is… commercialism!”
What saved the night (for me, anyway) was Sunny War, another Nashville native currently based on the West Coast. She’s a 20-year-old self-styled street musician with nothing but a homemade disc to her name, and if she’d been any more shy, she’d have done her set behind the curtain Keb Mo used as a backdrop. (“I wrote this song with a friend of mine,” she confided to us. “And we don’t want to go to parties any more. We just want… to be… alone…”) It’s when she sings, she definitely finds her voice — a sound straight out of indie rock that really stands out next to finger-picked solo-acoustic guitar with roots that stretch back to Robert Johnson. Her own lyrics are smart and uncompromising, and she mixes her own stuff with dead-solid perfect covers of Gillian Welch’s “Revelator” and Reagan Youth’s “Anytown.”
I got more from Sunny War in half an hour than I got from Keb Mo the rest of the night. With any luck, I’ll get more from War somewhere down the line – preferably when she’s got more time to talk and play, because she’s the real thing on both counts.
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Excerpt from Brian McElhiney’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Toward the back half of Keb’ Mo’s two-hour-plus set in the Hart Theatre at The Egg Saturday night, the perennially grinning blues guitarist said he wanted to get serious. He then proceeded to leave his guitar by the side of the stage as he wandered out into the full house, shaking his hips to the solid groove the band was laying down, while audience members followed him around dancing as if he were the Pied Piper of blues. As Mo’ retook the stage, a young boy followed him back up, and the two danced throughout the subsequent performance of ‘Gimme What You Got.’ It’s this kind of spontaneity that makes Mo’s shows so much fun. He might be the most genuinely happy blues musician in existence, quite a feat considering the subject matter of the music. But even when he was singing songs about such typical blues subjects as losing his job (‘We Don’t Need It’) or having his heart broken, Mo’ kept things breezy and light, but never sappily so.”