An Evening of Joyful Blues with Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’

Blues Legends Bring Good Time to Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley

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A long three months finally came to an end last night. Shortly after Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ had issued their collaboration album TajMo in May, I found out about their All Around the World tour and got a ticket to what I knew I simply wouldn’t want to miss. It was a great decision!

Yesterday night, the two blues dynamos brought their show to the F.M. Kirby Center of the Performing Arts in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The heart of the Wyoming Valley is not exactly New York or Chicago, but was well worth the 2.5-hour hike from my house through the Pocono Mountains!

Readers of the blog have probably noticed the blues has been on my mind frequently as of late. Undoubtedly, the excellent TajMo album, which I previously reviewed here, has something to do with it. In addition, I’ve been excited about other recent new releases in the blues and soul genres from artists like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Casey James and Southern Avenue. Maybe Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ are right when they expressed full confidence that the blues will survive during a recent PBS NewsHour segment.

Jontavious Willis

Before I get to TajMo, I’d like to say few words about the opening act, a country blues artist called Jontavious Willis. According to his online bio, Mahal called Willis “my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind.” After having seen last night’s 30-minute performance by the 21-year-old from Greenville, Ga., I have to say this is not an exaggeration and yet another indication that the prospects of the blues look bright these days!

Willis, who is currently finishing his studies at Columbus State University, released his debut album Blue Metamorphosis in February this year. He’ll continue to tour with TajMo for many of their upcoming gigs in August and September. What this young artist got out of just an acoustic guitar was insane. It’s hard to find clips that do his exceptional solo acoustic skills full justice.

After Willis blew off the Kirby Center’s roof with his dynamic acoustic guitar performance, it was time for TajMo. From the very first moment they walked on stage, their joy of performing together was palpable. The set opened with Señor Blues, a jazz standard by Horace Silver, which Mahal covered on his 1999 studio album with the same title. This was followed by Don’t Leave Me Here, the first of five songs Mahal and Mo’ played from TajMo, and one of favorites from that album.

After six tunes with the full band, the two blues maestros took things “to the deep country blues,” as Mahal put it, playing Diving Duck Blues. Written by Sleepy John Estes, Mahal first recorded the track on his 1969 eponymous debut album. It is also included on TajMo and another highlight of that record. Watch the amazing chemistry between the two.

One of the highlights during the second half of the set was The Worst Is Yet to Come. Co-written by Mo’, Heather Donovan and Pete Sallis, Mo included the tune on 2014’s BLUESAmericana, his 12th studio album. I wonder whether Mo’ got the inspiration for the song’s title from the American songbook 1959 standard The Best Is Yet to Come, which became one of Frank Sinatra’s popular tunes in the mid-’60s. Unfortunately, the only TajMo clip I could find is cut off in the beginning.

Ironically, The Worst Is Yet to Come was followed by one of my longtime favorite blues tunes: She Caught the Katy And Left Me a Mule to Ride. Prior to that I only had known the great version by The Blues Brothers. It turns out Mahal co-wrote this classic with Yank Rachell and included it on this second studio album The Natch’s Blues, which was released in 1968.

The last song I’d like to highlight is All Around the World, which also appears on TajMo and was the closer of the 20-song regular set. The tune perfectly sums up the positive vibes Mahal and Mo’ sent to the audience throughout the show. People were up on their feet and made some noise, so they came back for one encore: Soul, yet another tune from their collaboration album.

Finally, I’d like to say a few words about the top-notch band that backed up Mahal and Mo’. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the names of the musicians, but here are a few things I remember. The drummer comes from Memphis, Tenn., former home of the storied Stax Records label. The bassist, who is a lefty, hails from Washington, D.C. The fantastic horn section consists of a male trumpet player and female saxophonist. Mo’ called her out for her amazing sound. The keyboarder, who among others played a seductively roaring Hammond, was top-rate as well. Last but not least, there were two special background vocalists: Mahal’s daughters, Deva and Zoe. And they were not there just for alibi – these ladies can sing!

TajMo are taking their tour next to Wheeling, W.Va.; and Richmond, Va. before hitting New York City’s SummerStage in Central Park this Sunday, where they will perform a free show. I’m tempted to go there to see them again! The tour continues throughout the remainder of August and September all the way into October, when it concludes in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on October 21.

Sources: PBS NewsHour, Jontavious Willis website, Setlist.fm, Facebook, TajMo web site, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’

The two artists talk about their collaboration and their brand of upbeat blues

This clip from the PBS NewsHour beautifully captures the spirit of Taj Mahal’s and Keb’ Mo’s collaboration album TajMo and their ongoing tour. I can’t wait to see these two amazing artists at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. tomorrow night.

Taj Majal: “Life brings a lot of strive. In the digital age it’s even more intense. A lot of people don’t know how to get loose. So our job as musicians is to help them get loose and have a good time, and think good about themselves.”

Keb’ Mo’: “There is something working in life, in the universe, in the bigger picture that has nothing to do with commerce and money. And for me, I’ve found after 20 years of going after money that the faster I ran after money, the faster the money ran.”

Sources: PBS NewsHour, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listing to: Keb’Mo’/That Hot Pink Blues Album

Live album showcases Mo’s signature style mixing blues with pop and soul

These days, the blues seems to be on my mind a lot. I’m happy to report though that my mental state hasn’t changed – I’m still crazy about great music, and music is my doctor! Plus, when it comes to Keb’ Mo’, the blues rarely makes you feel down.

Born Kevin Roosevelt Moore on October 3, 1951 in South Los Angeles, Calif., Keb’ Mo’ initially broke through in 1994 with his eponymous second studio album. While the blues forms the backbone of most of his music, Mo’ has frequently mixed in other genres, including pop, soul and jazz throughout his 35-year-plus recording career.

Keb Mo

Country and delta blues hard core fans may dismiss Mo’s breed of the blues, but I like the fact that he’s been broadening the genre. In this regard, he reminds me a bit of Taj Mahal, who has mixed acoustic blues with folk and roots music from around the world, such as reggae, zydeco, West African and even Hawaiian music. To be clear, I also love pure country and delta blues but can always listen to artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sleepy John Estes and Robert Johnson.

I’m still relatively new to Keb’ Mo’ and only started paying closer attention to him when he and Taj Mahal released their collaboration album TajMo in May this year. I previously shared my thoughts on this outstanding record here. I’ve also been motivated to explore Mo’ more deeply, since I’m going to see him and Mahal next Thursday as part of their ongoing tour.

After listening into various of Mo’s 16 albums to date, I decided to highlight his latest solo record, which captures live performances from his 2015 tour. According to the bio on his web site, That Hot Pink Blues Album “began as almost an afterthought and an assortment of concert gems “for the fans,” because his front of house engineer decided to hit “record” at the beginning of each show.” The album ended up with 16 tracks captured from shows in nine different cities.

Keb Mo and Band

The live record presents tunes from throughout Mo’s career and, as such, is a great introduction to his music. Following are some of the songs I’d like to highlight.

The opener Tell Everybody I Know is written by Mo’ and first appeared on his above mentioned 1994 eponymous album. His guitar-playing has a bit of a J.J. Cale feel to it. I also love the keyboard part!

Next up is Somebody Hurt You. Co-written by Mo’ and John Lewis Parker, the track was included on BLUESAmericana, Mo’s 14th album released in 2014. The tune is a relaxed mid-tempo blues that showcases Mo’s electric guitar skills. The great background vocals add a nice dose of soul.

The Worst Is Yet to Come, another tune from BLUESAmericana, is one of the highlights on the album. Mo’ co-wrote this song with Heather Donovan and Pete Sallis. The amazing groove of this mid-tempo electric blues just makes you want you start moving. It’s another nice illustration of Mo’s electric guitar skills.

Government Cheese stands out to me for its seductive funky groove. Written by Mo’, the song first appeared on 2009’s Live of Mo’, his first live album. The track also includes an unexpected Moog-sounding keyboard part.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is More Than One Way Home. Written by Mo’ and John Lewis Parker, the song illustrates Mo’s pop side. He recorded it first for Just Like You, his third studio album from 1996, which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. He won two more, in 1998 and 2005, and had various additional Grammy nominations. The catchy pop jazz track features a nice electric slide guitar and a cool bass solo.

Before wrapping up this post, I’d also like to acknowledge Mo’s excellent back-up band: Michael B. Hicks (keyboards) Stan Sargeant (bass) and Casey Wasner (drums). Hicks is known in the funk and soul scene in Nashville, where Mo’ resides, and beyond the city. In addition to touring with Mo’, Hicks also records his own music. In 2013, he released an album called This Is Life, together with an 18-piece funk group, Mike Hicks and the Funk Puncs. Sargeant is a prominent session and touring bassist, who has worked with an impressive array of music artists like Dolly Parton, Vanessa Williams, Leonard Cohen, Jonathan Butler, David Benoit and Al Jarreau. He also released a solo record in 2014, a pop jazz album. Like Mo’, Wasner is a multi-instrumentalist. He also produced Mo’s BLUESAmericana album and writes his own music.

Sources: Wikipedia, Keb’ Mo’ website, Mike Hicks website, Stan Sargeant web site, Casey Wasner website, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’/ Diving Duck Blues

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo‘ perform Diving Duck Blues, a tune from their excellent collaboration album TajMo, which was released on May 5 and is hands-down one of my favorite 2017 records. I previously reviewed it here. Watching these two “old hands” playing together side by side in such a relaxed and joyful manner is just priceless to me and makes me want to grab my acoustic guitar. I’m not saying I could play like this – not even close!

Originally, Diving Duck Blues was written and released by country blues artist Sleepy John Estes – not sure when. The earliest recording reference I could find was a 1962 album called The Legend of Sleepy John Estes. Mahal also included the track on his eponymous debut album from 1968, as did electric blues rock dynamo Johnny Winter on his 1978 release White, Hot and Blue.

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ are currently touring together, and I’m set to see them next Thursday at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.  Can’t wait!

Sources: Wikipedia, Discogs, YouTube

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ Team Up For Uplifting Blues Album

What do you get when Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ get together? TajMo and a great dose of beautiful music!

Unless I know of a newly released album that interests me, I usually don’t bother browsing the “new music” section in iTunes. Well, this morning I did so anyway and came across TajMo, a new album from Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. And it’s a true gem!

Perhaps the first thing that’s striking about TajMo, which was released on May 5, is its upbeat music – not exactly how you traditionally picture the blues! “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is,” explained Mahal in an interview posted on the web site that supports the album. “It’s therapeutic, so you can get up off that down.” He added, “We wanted to do a real good record together, but we didn’t want to do the record that everyone expected us to do.”

While the two artists have known each other for a long time and Mahal helped Mo’ get his first record deal, this is their first collaboration album. What took them so long? Well, for one, both have been busy with their own careers. Since his 1980 debut Rainmaker, which appeared under his actual name Kevin Moore, Mo’ has released 14 additional albums. The last one was That Hot Pink Blues Album from April 2016. Mahal’s most recent solo album (his 26th) Maestro dates back to 2008. Additionally, both artists kept busy with touring. Sometimes good things take time to happen!

“The making of this record spanned two and a half years, whenever we could get together between tours,” Mo’ said during the above interview on the album’s web site. “And over that two and a half years, I got to know Taj really well. We’d talk about music and life and what we were doing on the record. He’s a stellar human being, just a brilliant man. Making this record was a really big deal for me. I learned a lot working with him.” Added Mahal, “Keb’s really good at keeping the ball up in the air. I got to see quite a few sides of him, and I was really impressed. He’s a hell of a guitar player, and I’m just amazed at some of the stuff that he put out there.”

Taj Mahal & Keb Mo 3

The album kicks off with Don’t Leave Me Here, which has a cool grove with Memphis style horns and a great blues harp, with Mahal and Mo’ taking turns on lead vocals. Shake Me In Your Arms is a great old-school soul tune featuring Joe Walsh on guitar. Another standout is Soul, which provides a nice dose of Afro-Caribbean grove – an invitation to get up and dance!

The album also includes various terrific covers. One is Squeeze Box, a song from The Who I’ve always loved. Mahal and Mo’ truly make it their own, turning it into a Cajun-style tune. Another cover I’d like to call out is Waiting On the World to Change, my favorite John Mayer song. While I’m a huge fan of the original, after listening to Mahal and Mo’, I can’t help but think these guys were meant to sing this song. Further kicking it up a notch for me is Bonnie Raitt on background vocals.

In addition to Walsh and Raitt, other guest musicians on the album include Sheila E. and Liz Wright. TajMo was self-produced by the two blues men. The album was recorded in Nashville by Zach Allen, John Caldwell and Casey Wasner and mixed by Ross Hogarth.

I think No Depression’s take sums it up nicely: “This is how you create a masterpiece, layering it slowly and carefully. Two and a half years in the making, pieced together in Mo’s home studio between tours, the record sounds like one special night when the planets were perfectly aligned and the artists and the sound man was too. But the real beauty of this creation is that this creature won’t give you nightmares, and in this story, the night never ends.”

Taj Mahal & Keb Mo Concert Poster

Mahal and Mo’ will criss-cross the U.S. and play 39 shows in support of the album. The tour kicks off in Fort Collins, Colo. on May 30 and concludes in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla on Oct 28. After listening to this album, I couldn’t resist to get a ticket for Aug 10, when they’ll play the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa – not exactly next door for me, but I’m already excited and will be sure to blog about the show.

Here’s a clip of Don’t Leave Me Here.

Sources: American Songwriter, TajMo web site, American Blues Scene, Glide Magazine, No Depression (The Journal of Roots Music), Wikipedia, YouTube