This year has seen a plethora of albums that have been created out of speaking out against America’s current foreign policy. Whether it’s the brash and unapologetic Steve Earle, who told the FCC to do something naughty to themselves on The Revolution Starts… Now or Springsteen doing his best for John Kerry in the days prior to Nov. 2, there’s a passion out there that hasn’t been this visible in several years. Keb’ Mo’ has also done his part, including a series of shows as part of the Vote for Change tour that occurred earlier in October. His latest album has the blues-meets-folk performer selecting well worn songs of peace and protest and reinventing or reinterpreting them in his own unique style. John Lennon, Elvis Costello, Dylan, and Buffalo Springfield are some of the people he attempts to cover, and he does so with a great amount of enthusiasm and craftsmanship. But he also has one or two of his own to bring to the table. “I believe that people on both the Left and the Right have more in common than we have differences”, he says in the press kit. Or, to take a line from Jagger at Altamont, “Who’s fighting and what for?”
Backed by a seasoned supporting cast of musicians, Keb’ Mo’ gives Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” a slow, soothing, smooth and somewhat funky version with organ and female harmonies courtesy of Nikka Costa. The chorus doesn’t stray too far from the original, but Keb’ Mo’s guitar work, however deliberate, is the key to the tune. The drums enter the fray to make the song a bit crunchier and meaty. The somewhat funky guitar shuffle is another key that makes everything come together. “Wake Up Everybody” ventures into ‘70s-era soul territory, perfect for adult contemporary radio stations. Originally performed by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes with help from Teddy Pendergrass, the tune is pure R&B. Although Keb’ Mo’ does a good job on the song, he sounds as if he could do this tune in his sleep, resulting in a tune that is okay, but which doesn’t really sound like a challenge for him.
“People Got to Be Free” has a lot of life in it as the singer seems to feed off the energy of the opening notes. Horns are on the song as well, as Keb’ Mo’ delicately picks his steel dobro. Think of an arrangement that Phil Collins would’ve loved to have on Testify and you should get a good sonic image of the tune. Perhaps the finest moment comes during “Talk”, a song Keb’ Mo’ wrote himself as a letter to Dubya days after September 11. “There goes the Navy / Sailing off to war / Do they know who they’re fighting / Or what they’re fighting for”, he sings while complemented with another relaxing, warm and almost island-like flavor. This song fares much better than Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Happening Brother”, which is too forced and at times too busy. Taken from Gaye’s classic 1971 album What’s Going On, the song seems like a lounge-meets-jazz tune that is only interesting thanks to the interplay among Keb’ Mo’ and Mindi Abair on soprano saxophone.
A definite sleeper pick and surprisingly strong performance is his cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. Backed only by Jeff Paris on acoustic piano, Keb’ Mo’ is alone with the song and brings with him a soulful, tender, and somewhat melancholic effort. The simplicity of the song musically has been a staple of folk singers for decades, but here the singer takes it into a somewhat gospel field, like a tender church hymn, causing it to be one of the most memorable versions in recent memory. “Someday We’ll All Be Free” is another decent tune despite coming across too light or fluffy in the initial moments. A Mellencamp-ish arrangement gives Elvis Costello’s cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding” a very diverse and eclectic feel, losing the rock and replacing it with a traditional mountain music sound. Lennon’s “Imagine” might be best placed in the middle of the album as it tends to leave the record with a somber ending. Nonetheless, Keb’ Mo’ has taken these songs and made them his uniquely acoustically-tinted own.