By Roy Kasten
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With just a quick glance at his porkpie hat, retro fashion sense and collection of traditional stringed instruments, one might be tempted to peg Keb' Mo' as a hokey blues revivalist, a sort of Taj Mahal: The Next Generation recycling the Mississippi-front-porch trope for youngsters who missed hearing the music's progenitors firsthand.
Listen to him perform, however, and you'll find a soulful singer and versatile songwriter influenced by rock, folk, pop, soul and gospel as well as blues. Born Kevin Moore in 1951, the Compton native enjoyed a couple of decades of moderate success as a sideman and session guitarist, playing rock, funk and R&B in local bands around Los Angeles, backing more established performers such as former Jefferson Starship violinist Papa John Creach and guitarist/producer Monk Higgins, and even cutting an ill-fated solo album for Casablanca's Chocolate City subsidiary.
But the turning point of his career came in 1990, when Moore began to delve more deeply into the blues to win a role portraying Robert Johnson in a production of the play Rabbit Foot. Reinventing himself as Keb' Mo' -- the nickname was bestowed upon him by the drummer in his band -- he signed with Epic/Okeh and released a well-received eponymous album. Since then, Mo' often has found himself where few bluesmen get to tread, performing regularly on TV (including several acting roles), getting his music into dozens of film and television soundtracks and collaborating with the rock-star likes of Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Lyle Lovett.
Perhaps some of the songs on his latest CD, Keep It Simple, are a bit too sunny to imagine him with a hellhound on his trail, but Mo's voice -- world-weary, optimistic, hurt, playful and wise all at the same time -- is a wonderful instrument naturally imbued with blues feeling. And as a songwriter, guitarist and producer, he displays a relaxed, economical approach that wears well with listeners of widely divergent tastes. The public persona of Keb' Mo' may be something of a late-blooming artificial construct, but his talent is lasting and genuine.