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Keb' Mo' jazzing up the blues

Keb’ Mo’

Grammy-winning blues and roots musician Keb’ Mo’ is returning to the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on Wednesday night (9/26).
Keb’ Mo’ Grammy-winning blues and roots musician Keb’ Mo’ is returning to the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on Wednesday night (9/26).

Less is more. As Keb’ Mo’ has moved into his third decade as a recording and touring artist, he has realized that adage applies to what he wants to do in his live shows.

That idea of stripping things back is easy enough when Keb’ Mo’ (real name Kevin Moore) is playing a solo acoustic gig. But these days he’s trying to achieve something similar to his solo acoustic shows when he’s leading his four-piece band by getting his words and vocals to be the focus and have the other instruments complement and enhance those central elements of his songs.

“I’m trying to merge the same feeling with the band show and the solo show,” Moore, 66, said in a recent phone interview. “What I’ve been working on is toning down the band show to have the feeling of the solo shows — you know what I mean — just kind of pull it back as opposed to coming out, ‘We’re gonna rock the house.’ We can do a little bit of rocking around the end of the show, but we try to create that same experience with a textured layer of tones that are just as inviting and lovely.”

Keb’ Mo’ will return to a solo acoustic format for some shows in October and November. On Wednesday (9/26), he’ll return to the Englert Theatre in Iowa City, where he also performed in April 2016.

The series comes in the wake of some major honors. In January, Keb’ Mo’ and fellow bluesman Taj Mahal won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for their 2017 collaborative album, “TajMo.” That honor was followed by Blues Foundation Blues Awards for Best Album and Best Contemporary Blues Album, while Keb’ Mo’ also took home the Blues Award for Best Contemporary Blues Male Artist.

Keb’ Mo’ first encountered Taj Mahal in high school in 1969 when Mahal, then a rising star on the scene, played at his high school. Mahal’s brand of gritty acoustic-centered blues, mixed in with country, folk, jazz, as well as African, Caribbean and other world music influences, was an eye-opener for Kevin Moore.

“You had Motown, and it was the ’60s and it was hippies,” Moore said. “But this just woke me up. ‘Wait a minute. Get up, get up. Get out of your bed.’”

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Eventually Moore’s own music would incorporate influences that have flavored Mahal’s work in his 50-plus-year career. But it took time for Moore to find his musical voice.

A Los Angeles native, he spent time in a calypso group and an assortment of cover bands before he got his first taste of national exposure in 1973. That’s when he was hired by Papa John Creach, the late violinist who recorded with Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship, for what became a three-year stint touring and recording. His first solo album fizzled, however, when his 1980 release, “Rainmaker,” stiffed.

After that setback, Moore joined a group founded by producer Monk Higgins called the Whodunit Band that introduced him to blues music. This came in handy when in 1990 he played Delta blues music in “The Rabbit Foot,” a play produced by the Los Angeles Theater Center.

In 1993, Moore met Mahal in a recording studio, handed him his demo tape, and from there began a lasting friendship and collaborative musical relationship.

Moore’s 1994 self-titled debut album earned him considerable acclaim for his contemporary take on acoustic-based blues. He followed that debut effort in 1996 with “Just Like You,” and saw the album win him the first of his four Grammy Awards.

He has released another 10 studio and live albums, solidifying his reputation as a talented blues/roots artist and building a sizable fan base. The “TajMo” album introduce him to more fans. Moore is pleased that the project has been well received.

“It’s really nice,” he said. “We worked really hard on (the album). We just wanted it to be good for the people. We put in a lot of hours. The fact that people are getting it is really rewarding.”

Get out!

WHAT: Keb’ Mo’

WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday (9/26)

TICKETS: $41.50 to $149 VIP; Englert Box Office, (319) 688-2653 or Englert.org/event/keb-mo-2/

ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Kebmo.com

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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