Legendary guitarist Keb’ Mo’ is coming to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) on Saturday, May 19. He’s bringing along a four-piece backing band for what promises to be a great show,
which will include new material as well as audience favorites.
Keb’ Mo’s music is appealingly diverse, ranging anywhere from Delta blues-inflected songs played on a steel-bodied resonator guitar to jazz-inflected funk. One song can conjure up the relaxed, congenial spirit of Mississippi John Hurt, and that might be followed by a sweet, B.B. King–style blues number. The audience can expect many such shifts at WHBPAC on Saturday.
“We’re expanding the repertoire a little,” says Keb’ Mo’ from his home in Nashville, where rehearsals for his latest tour are underway. “I’m looking for a more subtle approach, more textural and layered.” That’s saying quite a bit, because Keb’ Mo’s approach to live performance has always been subtle and layered. Never one to blast out face-melting guitar leads, he’s a self-described “soft” guitar player. But he notes that it can be difficult to maintain that tastefulness across an ensemble.
“It’s a real challenge—it probably takes the most work of anything,” Keb’ Mo’ says. First, it involves controlling the tone of the different instruments on stage so that each gets its own space in the mix—it’s what he calls “tone management.” “Everybody wants a big sound, but I say somebody’s got to have a skinny sound.”
Second, it requires getting the players to listen to what’s happening around them. “I tell them ‘don’t play so many notes—and don’t play over the lead vocal!’ It takes a large awareness on everybody’s part.”
The result is striking for a live performance, with every last little detail clearly audible, from the gentle sound of the metal slide rubbing on a guitar string to the thin sizzle of the Hammond organ. It’s an achievement in musical sensitivity that Keb’ Mo’ is quite proud of. “You can hear everything,” he says.
It’s especially important for Keb’ Mo’ that people hear and understand his lyrics—he writes or co-writes the majority of what he plays, and he’s always been more focused on songs than on guitar pyrotechnics. “I have guitar heroes—electric players like Larry Carlton and B.B. King, acoustic players like Big Bill Broonzy and Mississippi John Hurt—but I’ve always been much more into songwriters.”
In this way, Keb’ Mo’ has a lot in common with his biggest musical hero and mentor, the great Taj Mahal, after whom he modeled his own career. “He’s a world music guy with a high propensity for the blues,” Keb’ Mo’ says. “He showed me that you can do that, be grounded in the blues and branch out from there.” Like Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal is not a flashy player but rather a sonic explorer equally at home on the five-string banjo or a National steel guitar.
A few years ago, Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal finally joined forces—they called their alliance Taj Mo’—for an album and a tour. “It works really well,” says Keb’ Mo’ of the natural pairing, and he’s hopeful that the two will be able to do it again sometime soon.
Meanwhile, Keb’ Mo’ will roll into Westhampton with two keyboard players, David Rogers and Kevin So, along with Keith James on bass and Les Falconer on drums. As to the absence of a second guitar player on stage, Keb’ Mo’ doesn’t mince words. “They play too loud, and too many notes!” So one thing you know for certain going into Saturday night: you’ll be able to hear everything, and it will sound so good.
Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center is located at 76 Main Street in Westhampton Beach. 631-288-1500 whbpac.org.