It’s kind of hard to hate Kevin Moore, even though he calls himself Keb’ Mo’, is almost insanely ingratiating, does exactly what his middle-class blues-loving audience wants him to do and is about as edgy as a sphere. I mean, he played “America the Beautiful” on the final episode of The West Wing, fer chrissakes. This stuff is all like kryptonite to music writers. We’re supposed to make guys like Keb’ Mo’ pay for working in an old discredited genre, for not somehow moving the discourse forward, or for pleasing people instead of getting all in our faces, maaaaan, like all those guys they tell us to love in the Lester Bangs Memorial Rock Writers Handbook.
But, dang it, Moore is just too talented and nice to hate, or even to ignore. After all, he’s been in the industry for 26 years, he’s won three Grammy awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and he’s played Robert Johnson in movies, so you know he’s a pro all the way. He’s also been branching out lately, producing the newest (underwhelming) album by the subdudes, and he co-wrote the last song on the new (awesome) Dixie Chicks album. You have to figure that people wouldn’t be beating such a path to his door unless he was capable of inventing a hell of a mousetrap.
Suitcase isn’t exactly revolutionary, nor is it meant to be. It’s 12 solid blues-based pop songs, or pop-based blues songs—not sure yet where I come down on that issue, but it doesn’t really matter. His audience and AAA radio stations will eat this stuff up with a spoon, he’ll tour for many months with it, and those who are too cool for it can just go and listen to something cooler.
As for the rest of us, we like the lazy way his songs unfold. “Rita” starts with the barest hint of a New Orleans second-line drumbeat, and makes its guitar, bass and two separate organ lines count for something. When Moore finally decides to sing, he invites you into his sadness over having lost the eponymous title character; it’s okay that this sadness is wistful instead of pained, because agony and self-torture wouldn’t really be Keb’ Mo’ music. More to the point, it wouldn’t really appeal to his audience, either.
Because he watches out for us, Keb’ Mo’ does. When he does his horny song, “The Itch,” he throws in some Latin lines and talks about how he’s got “the fever” and tells us that “it’s the same damn thing all over again”—but that’s as far as he’s going to go, because otherwise it might be too much and actually mimic what it’s like to be desperately horny, and he doesn’t want to do that. When he busts out with the slow jam “I’m a Hero,” a simple working man who never gets a raise or noticed at work, he doesn’t get angry about his ill-treatment, because that wouldn’t be very Keb’ Mo’ either. Nope, he’s just grateful for what he has: “I may not be a soldier in the army / And I don’t have money, fortune or fame / And there’s nobody out there strokin’ my ego / But when it comes to my woman, I’m a hero”. So well-mannered, so salt-of-the-earth, so adorable!
Things get a bit more gritty on the title track, which starts off all minimal but soon turns into a country-blues jam with harmonicas and tuba-like bass and a story about a traveling man and his traveling woman and all their ready-to-travel kids. It’s funny and wise and old-fashionedy and it sounds just like something Taj Mahal would have recorded in 1971 when he was already trying to make records that sounded like things that could have been recorded in 1934. Is it the new thing? HELL no. Is it really the old thing? No, not really that either. It’s just, y’know, Keb’ Mo’ music, rockin’ right along with a smile and a wink. It’s like the opposite of whatever the opposite of avant-garde is, but it’s relentlessly nice.
I think that what Keb’ Mo’ is doing is actually kind of heroic. He’s talented enough to do a whole bunch of things, but he’s got his own thing going on. He could be coming up with tongue-in-cheek music that hipsters could appreciate ironically, but he’s just too sincere for that. He could be doing straight-up trad blues for that extra-cool roots appeal, but he’s not interested in kudos that way. He could take his prodigious guitar talent—listen to him fingerpick on “Eileen,” he’s got chops for real—and burn the place down, but that’s not really what he’s after either. (See him live, he stretches out there a little bit ... but only in the service of the song.) And his sunniness knows no bounds; hell, the last song here is a bouncy 2/4 number called “Life is Beautiful,” and it’s 100% heartfelt.
Nope, what Keb’ Mo’ is after is music that tastes good. Sometimes, he might have to add some cheese, or some extra sugar, but only if he needs to, and then only in moderation. He’ll never make a masterpiece, but that doesn’t matter, because he’ll also never make a mistake or alienate anyone. And if pushing the envelope is your definition of what musicians (or really any artists) are supposed to do, that’s fine for you, you had better stay away. Me, I want some of what Kevin Moore is on. I think he’s a Zen master and I think he might be able to teach us all a lot of somewhat interesting things.