Keb’ Mo’, the blues guitarist who is well-known for keeping the spirit of his genre alive, chose to go in a different direction for his latest album “The Reflection.” “I was signed during a phase where I was just really into all that – the Delta and fingerpickin’ and just winging it. And so it’s still in me, it’s all there, but I just – I like other stuff too,” he says. Keb’ Mo’ visits Strathmore on Thursday and talked with Click Track about the future of Delta Blues after the death of David “Honeyboy” Edwards, keeping it fresh, and how younger generations are playing the blues.
With the passing of David “Honeyboy” Edwards, it has been circulating that he was the last Delta bluesman of his era – but is he really? Aren’t there more?
Oh, no there’s more. Of course there’s more. I mean, but he was – as far as the ’30s, that ’30s era, that era - yes. Yes, there’s more Delta bluesmen. There will always be Delta bluesmen. But Honeyboy was special, in the fact that he was infinitely linked to the Robert Johnson era. Whereas he was actually in the room the night Robert Johnson got poisoned.
That’s kind of like that era, and then with the passing of also Robert Lockwood, Jr. several years ago, who was Robert Johnson’s stepson. He actually learned to play from Robert Johnson. So there’s people like Johnny Shines who are gone now, who are linked – people who knew Robert Johnson personally. Robert Johnson is kind of a legendary figure. He’s folkloric, he’s almost – he’s mysterious…and for someone to have known him it’s like somebody who knew…D.B. Cooper or something, you know? It’s like that.
We found out D.B. Cooper wasn’t really D.B. Cooper, he was some other guy, that’s the name he used. And Robert Johnson’s name was actually Robert Spencer, I think. You had to have a cool name.
What do you think about the future of Delta blues?
As a culture, we don’t have our eye on the blues 24/7. We always have our eye on what’s popular. We always have our eye on the Lady Gaga’s and the Adele’s and U2’s and – we have our eye on what’s big and what’s coming at you hard. We have our eye on the Internet; we have our eye on Facebook and all these things. But the Delta blues – people aren’t really watching that. So, it has to be brought forth – someone has to be brought forth.
There was Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters – you know, B.B. King came out of the Delta. Buddy Guy came out- all those guys came out of the Delta. And so the Delta is a rich, fertile ground, but there was the North Carolina blues, there was the East Coast Blues, there was Alabama blues, there’s Oklahoma blues, Texas blues. All of it’s blues. But somehow the Mississippi Delta – because of the life of Robert Johnson, the popularity of B.B. King, and very important figures that came out of Mississippi, it’s really popular. And also Alan Lomax going there – I believe it was the ’40s, the ’50s – and finding, actually finding Muddy Waters.
So it’s kind of had some good press, too. But that era was driven by what was going on at the time, the culture at that time. It was driven by a lot of ex-slaves, people [who were] one generation removed from slavery.
It was fueled by Jim Crow, and some hard times. It was fueled by also the fight between the blues and the church, so to speak. It was just by the juicy stuff – made it work. And in today’s climate, it’s hard to really find that - that same sound, that same field. But today has its own field, its own climate as well. And it has its own sound with the blues. The blues has its own sound. But every now and then somebody [new] will pop up and just say “Whoa, where did that come from?”
You know, we were around this girl – her name was Sunny War . And this girl is probably 16 or 18 or something. And she’s playing this stuff…this Piedmont-style guitar, and she’s from somewhere down in Tennessee- and singing these punk songs. Covers, you know? In this Piedmont-style guitar, and then turn around and doing Elizabeth Cotton…I’m wondering ‘Where did that come from? What is that?’ And basically her grandpa was a banjo-picker. So she learned from him and he taught her a few guitar things too, and so now she’s just kind of is embodying this Elizabeth Cotton vibe and doing these punk songs.
She’s carrying the torch. And speaking of carrying the torch, I think a lot of people look to you as one of the younger Delta bluesmen. How do you feel about passing that legacy on and still playing in that vein?
I feel great about playing in that vein. I love that vein. Don’t get me wrong. Even though my latest record is probably… pretty far away from that.
The blues is always fun. It’s always great. But I’m a guy – I like a challenge, and I like diversity as well. So, I was expected – when my first record came out, I was expected to be the new blues guy that was going to carry the torch. But basically, I was caught during a phase. I was signed during a phase where I was just really into all that – the Delta and fingerpickin’ and just winging it. And so it’s still in me, it’s all there, but I just – I like other stuff too. I play other stuff. And I want to play it.
This latest album, “The Reflection,” is your farthest departure from the blues. What made you decide to try something different?
It wasn’t a decision. It was – that’s what came out, that’s what was going on. And like a song like “The Reflection,’ the title cut. I co-wrote that with a guy named Joe Charupakorn. We wrote this really funky blues song on my second album called “Stand at the Station.” He’s from England. And he called me up and said ‘I want to do some writing…can we get together and write a song?” I said ‘Sure.’ So he came over and I said ‘Let’s try to write a standard.’ ‘Cause my favorite song – one of my favorite songs – is ‘Stardust.’
‘Let’s see if we can write another ‘Stardust’ or something that just stands alone, something like a ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ or a ‘What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?’ One of those old standards from the 40’s. That was our attempt, and that’s pretty far away from the Delta. So we sat down and took a song that I had already written. I had already written this song called “I See Myself In You.” Which is now ‘The Reflection (I See Myself In You).’ I had already written it, and it was a good song, but it just…I don’t know, it just sounds like – there was nothing special about it. And I would put it out and everybody would probably like it, and say ‘Oh, that Keb’ Mo,’ nice, simple,’ but I said, ‘Nah, let’s go in deep.’
What inspires you to keep your music fresh?
Well, I like change, and I like balance in life. I’m a Libra, my birthday’s coming up October 3.
My biggest job is to keep myself entertained while entertaining others. So when I go out on the stage I’m fresh, and I’m feeling like I’m really doing something challenging to me, and that my audience will pick up on the fact that I’m not just phoning it in.
What are you excited about as far as getting back on the road and touring again and getting to some old and visiting new places? What do you look forward to most?
I look forward to rebuilding the band, ‘cause the band is a new band, so our repertoire is limited right now. And we weren’t able to really go in and…rehearse the band…because it’s very expensive. The budget’s just not there. So, we started out with – I created a set, and we started out with that set, and I very carefully put the new band together and proceeded to just get a good start, a good starting point. And we’ll be adding songs as we go on the road. Adding from the new records, and adding the old stuff, too. Just developing musically, and getting [to] another level of performing. You know, like hitting more on notes than flat notes (laughs). Playing better, giving a more heartfelt performance to the audience. Being present – I just like doing good work and contributing something that makes people leave feeling good - makes people leave feeling better than before they came in contact with whatever I put out there.