With his 1994 eponymous debut, Keb’ Mo’, the Los Angeles-native also known as Kevin Moore let loose with an album full of solid songwriting and extraordinary acoustic blues guitar work, spurring some critics to hail him as the second coming of Robert Johnson. Four releases and two Grammy awards for “Best Contemporary Blues Album” later, Moore continues to refine his sound, seeking to bridge the wide stylistic gap between the rich history of Southern blues and the best of current pop sensibilities.
His latest release, Big Wide Grin, certainly runs that broad gamut with a number of new originals combined with a healthy dose of covers, including Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely”, Sly and the Family Stone’s “A Family Affair”, and Joni Mitchell’s environmental anthem “Big Yellow Taxi”. Unafraid to acknowledge his musical roots while at the same time trying to reach beyond his own experiences into the deep past of the blues, Moore weaves a curious amalgam of tradition and modernity into a style that is uniquely his own.
Moore’s solo appearance at the Madrid Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, signaled the second-to-last stop on a lengthy summer tour that started several months ago in Europe. But even with this grueling schedule, Moore seemed relaxed and comfortable; the boundless energy and affable humor that characterizes much of his studio work was present in abundance. With a black porkpie hat topping his tall and lanky frame, he shuffled to his chair set on the edge of the stage armed with a steel guitar and a sheepish grin. With a declaration of “Well, let’s go”! he immediately launched into “Muddy Water”, the first track off of his 1998 release Slow Down. “I love muddy water”, belted Moore, “I’m ready for the blues tonight”.
The audience was ready too and they certainly got what they wanted. From the frustration and anger of love in “Am I Wrong” to the sublime beauty of Moore’s guitar work on “Henry,” the set was filled with wit, sly humor, and passion, capturing the attention and appreciation of the crowd. A brief sidestep into the blues classic “Kansas City” in the middle of “Hand It Over” was also met with raucous approval. With occasional support from fellow guitarist and banjo player Clayton Gibb, Moore paced through an 18-song, two-hour set, taking time between songs to joke with the audience and introduce nearly each number. The unique atmosphere of the Madrid with its spacious dance floor and candlelit balcony made it the perfect venue, lending a welcome sense of intimacy to the whole affair.
The most poignant moment of the evening came during the lengthy encore. Introducing the first song by only saying that he’s been playing it for the last nine years, Moore quietly slipped into “America the Beautiful”. Tender and subdued, his voice trailed off leaving the audience to sing the final verse. Out of the context of a national holiday or the recent tragedies in New York and Washington, D.C., it would have been odd decision for encore material, but now it was an intensely moving choice.
Given the heavy-heartedness of the past few weeks, it was a welcome irony to be able to find a brief escape and a sense of uplifting hope from listening to an evening of the blues.