November 01, 1997

Mo’ Better Blues

Filed under: Archive,Music


Keb’ Mo’

Tivoli Hotel

Johnnie Johnson

Governor Hindmarsh

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

A late despatch from last month. Keb’ Mo’ – that’s Delta blues for Kevin Moore- is beaming at the stand up crowd at the Tiv. “Yo’ got yourselves a championship football team.” His drawling pentameter turns the phrase into twenty five syllables. And the Crows fans love every one of them. It has been a top weekend. Yesterday a win at the MCG and now some Sunday night good-time blues from a very amiable stylist.

It was when he landed a role as a bluesman in an LA theatre production seven years ago that  Keb’ Mo’ got back into roots music. He used to play backup to Papa John Creach in the seventies and then in r’n’b house bands in the eighties. But nothing quite predicted that he’d be picking up the coveted W.C.Handy blues award for his 1995 debut album, or a Grammy for best contemporary blues recording for his current CD Just Like You. (Sony)

In his coffee coloured fedora and matching vest, Keb Mo looks like a St Louis gambler and has all the charm of a carpet bagger. His fingers glide over his Gibson guitar as he opens his set with Victim of Comfort.  The cascading bottleneck runs, rich grainy voice and easy manner has the audience bopping straight off. Reminiscent of Taj Mahal and that sweet old legend, Mississippi John Hurt, Keb’ Mo’ is strong on self irony and low on angst.

The nimble syncopations in Perpetual Blues Machine are garnished with harmonica. ForThat’s Not Love and his new age blues, You Can Love Yourself , he takes up his National Resophonic dobro, a gleaming, steel-bodied wonder which summons up the very mortgaged soul of the Mississippi Delta. The sound pours off the guitar like metal ribbons, all cross-hatchings and unexpectedly tender harmonics. This is the blues today. Not artificially exhumed, not a feat of scholarly ventriloquism, but an idiom inhabited and renewed. It Sets Me Free , he sings -and you know what he means.

Just Like Me, a beautifully judged call for racial tolerance, is a high point. Soulful pop, sung with conviction, it showcases  Keb’ Mo’ as a versatile contemporary performer. Purists have been known to protest such excursions but it is futile pedantry to do so. Besides, when he swings into Dangerous Mood, a sardonic portrait of the singer as Badass, as Staggerlee, Keb’ Mo’ is back in that honourable lineage of blues shouters from Joe Turner to Jimmy Witherspoon.

Closing with Hand it Over , a jump-driving, dobro ragtime which has the crowd in raptures, Keb’ Mo’ mixes gospel jubilation with a wry smile. Check out the CDs and watch out for him next time round.

And, four weeks later at the Governor Hindmarsh, veteran piano master Johnnie Johnson is surrounded by two Hippos, a Black Sorrow and a Bondi Cigar. The house band made up of bassist John Power, Rory McKibbin on guitar, Joe Camilleri on sax and drummer Ace Follington, represents some of the best blues/soul musicians in the country. But tonight we are seeing their collective homage directed towards Johnnie Johnson, born St Louis Missouri, 1924,  piano player with Chuck Berry for thirty years. Despite helping complete the Berry sound he never saw a royalty for his writing until Keith Richards and Eric Clapton sponsored his solo comeback album a few years back. But does Mr Johnson look bitter and twisted ? Far from it.

In striped shirt and tractor driver’s cap he looks like a Florida retiree on vacation. Good-humoured and warmly generous to his fellow musicians, he sets up business behind his electric Roland. The band has played a well-judged opening set and come back to set the stage with Crazy in a Mixed up World. Johnnie opens with Got to See You, his large hands grabbing big bunches of notes, trills and strides, while the band respectfully lays the rhythm and McKibbin the guitar fills. Kansas City follows, Johnson warming to his task with hard rocking glee.

Tanqueray, a new title from the Keith Richards collaboration has some nicely ambling guitar while Joe Camilleri adds  smoky garnishes on tenor horn. And it wouldn’t be a Johnnie Johnson show without a reminder that he is the ivory Chuck left behind. JoJo leads the vocals on You Never Can Tell and Promised Land and McKibbin takes over for Bright Lights,  Big City also adding some hot guitar turns as well.

The band which is now on its way to points west and north is clearly enjoying its Master Class opportunity. Johnnie Johnson, lord of the slow blues, plays effortless interludes for Key to the Highway and Stormy Monday, and the rock-a-boogie of Johnny B.Goode never sounded better. But it is not all work for a septugenarian piano legend. For the encore he unwinds a loping syncopated shuffle for Goin’ Fishin’. It is apparently a great enthusiasm of his. And he’s probably good at it. He certainly had this Thursday night turnout completely hooked.

The Adelaide Review, No.170, November, 1997, p.36.

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