by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 30, 2001) - About the only thing that Keb’ Mo’ and Bela Fleck have in common besides several Grammy Awards between them is that one of them traces his roots to Africa and the other plays an instrument with roots on that continent.
Other than that, the pairing of pop-blues singer Keb Mo’ and jazz-bluegrass banjoist Bela Fleck at the top of the bill of “Bela in the Berkshires,” an all-day music festival at Butternut Basin this Sunday, Aug. 5, is hardly typical of the sort of thematic programming on which most festivals rely.
When asked what he thinks he shares in common with Fleck’s innovative, experimental fusion of jazz and bluegrass, Keb’ Mo’ said “Not much.”
“That’s what’s great about it -- we don’t have that much musically in common,” said Mo’, , speaking in a recent phone interview from Nice, France.
“We’re both experimental, a little bit,” said Mo’, who was born Kevin Moore and who took the stage name, Keb’ Mo’, about a decade ago. “Bela’s a jazz banjoist, which is different. It’s interesting -- I’m in Europe now, where they tend to mix things up really nicely rather than trying to make everything very one-dimensional. Here it’s just music festivals, period. And this is a good bill like that. “I did a show in Denver with [rock band] Big Head Todd and the Monsters, which I thought would be strange, but it was cool. The diversity makes it cool, not the similarities.” Kevin Moore is no stranger to musical diversity. In his teens, he played the trumpet, French horn, bass fiddle and steel drums. In 1973, after a stint in a calypso band and one in a Top 40 group, Moore was discovered by Jefferson Airplane violinist Papa John Creach, with whom he performed, toured and recorded until 1976.
He also began writing songs during this time, and eventually he joined A&M Records as a staff writer. In 1980, under the name Kevin Moore, he released his first solo album as a singer-guitarist, “Rainmaker,” a pop-flavored collection that went nowhere fast. Three years later, after a stint with a vocal group called the Rose Brothers, he began performing at a Los Angeles nightclub with a group called the Whodunit Band. It was his fateful meeting with the blues musicians in the Whodunit Band that launched Moore on his path toward a career based in the blues. Under their tutelage he learned the basics, before winning the role of a Delta bluesman in a play called “Rabbit Foot.” Other theatrical roles soon followed, including a role in “Spunk,” based on the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. He met and played with people like Albert Collins, Jimmy Witherspoon, Pee Wee Crayton and Big Joe Turner. And he went on a pilgrimage to Mississippi where he met with legendary Delta bluesman Eugene Powell. Moore made his recording debut as a blues singer and guitarist named Keb’ Mo’ - a street-talk version of his own name -- in 1994 on the revitalized Okeh label, which originally recorded the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Duke Ellington. Since that time he has twice won the W.C. Handy Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year Award. His second album, “Just Like You,” won the Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album, a feat he repeated with his third album, “Slow Down,” in 1999. Along with the awards and critical acclaim, however, there have been occasional complaints about Moore’s music, that it is too pop-influenced or not traditional enough.
“People give flak, but I don’t take it,” said Moore, letting out a good-natured laugh. “It’s a small minority, and they’re entitled to their opinion, and I’m entitled to ignore them. “I’m just a guy with a great respect for the blues. I think I’ve done as much blues homework as a lot of folks -- maybe not as much as some, but maybe more than others. “But the point is that with the blues, you can’t compete with the old masters. And it’s not competitive -- it’s an art form, a form of expression, not a form of copying. “Of course we’re influenced, but we evolve to another place. Any time someone does something different they always catch some flak. But that’s okay -- maybe that’s a sign of being on the right track when you catch some flak.”
Moore’s latest album, “Big Wide Grin” (Sony Wonder) probably won’t endear him any further to the blues purists. A family-oriented collection of original and popular tunes, it includes rootsy, family-friendly arrangements of the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” Sly Stone’s “Family Affair,” Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and a slow, jazzy version of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” songs which are bound to appeal to baby-boomer parents happy to share these old, familiar pop hits with their children. Moore is ready to fend off critics off his latest work who will undoubtedly be confused by its refusal to toe the purist blues line. “We have a collective unconsciousness of things being separated, and when we challenge that people get uncomfortable and start to whine,” said Moore, whose recorded efforts are no more or less bluesy than those of Eric Clapton.
“But that’s good because the truth can reveal itself. All our comforts and what we like can be revealed, not to be judged, not to be looked on with spite. But let it be revealed and look at it and move forward and evolve and have fun.”
Gates open for Sunday’s “Bela in the Berkshires” festival at noon and music starts at 1. Performers include Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Keb’ Mo’, Martin Sexton, and Melissa Ferrick. The festival will begin with Berkshire singer-songwriters in the round, featuring Robby Baier, Meg Hutchinson and Adam Michael Rothberg. In addition to music, the festival will include craft vendors, a food court and refreshments. For more info call 1-888-325-2375 or visit www.berkfest.com.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Aug. 3, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]
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