Optimistic Blues: Keb Mo’s Suitcase

By Daniel Garrett

Keb Mo
Suitcase
Producer: John Porter
Epic/Sony, 2006

Keb Mo’s “Your Love,” about the attraction and sustenance of love, has a blues twang and a lilting beat that reminds me of reggae music, a music of spirituality and protest and joy. On the recording, the voice of Keb Mo (Kevin Moore) is plain, offering a few words at a time. Hearing that, it is easy to think that Keb Mo might be young or old, of today or a distant yesterday: he seems to fit easily into the blues tradition. “The Itch” is a dramatic treatment of getting free from troubled love, and feeling drawn to it again; and the song is a prayer, a request for guidance. In “The Itch,” a song Keb Mo wrote with Jeff Paris, Keb Mo sings, “You get the fever./ You get the itch./ You forget about the mess you are in./ You forget about the money, the lawyers and the pain./ And do the same damn thing all over again.” Keb Mo’s vocal performance is expressive—there’s more connection between notes, between words (there is more legato), and the music has a smoldering quality. “Eileen” is a memory song about a bar meeting that leads to a brief encounter between a man and a woman. It shows us scenes that are both ordinary and vivid: a connection between two people, memorable but not lasting. One can hear the nearness of country music to the blues in the song. (“When I was growing up what is currently identified as Country music was sold by 5 & 10 cent stores in the form of recordings and we recognized Negro influences, just as we recognized Irish, French and Spanish influences in Afro-American music,” said Ralph Ellison in an interview titled “Ralph Ellison’s Territorial Vantage” in the book Living with Music, published by The Modern Library, NY, 2001; page 30). The indeterminacy of human relationship is the true theme of the song “Eileen”: is an encounter accidental and inconsequential; or is it meaningful? Is our sense of loss realistic or sentimental? In that way, music gives us over to both contemplation and comfort.

“Don’t stand there lying/ straight to my face./ You’re not a lawyer./ You got no case./ And your alibi,/ it don’t make sense./ You’re just a criminal./ I’ve got all the evidence,” sings Keb Mo in “Remain Silent,” a song he wrote with Alan Rich. In “Remain Silent,” Keb Mo has an effective song that posits the narrator as a judge in a relationship, advising his acquaintance to remain silent rather than to lie. Keb Mo’s voice is inflected with conviction and a dramatic sense; and the instrumental arrangement is not far from rhythm and blues (and the drumbeat would not be out of place in certain rock songs).

The lyrics focus on the dependability of a loved one in “Still There for Me,” a ballad: and the narrator appreciates the loyalty. However “Rita” is a song of regret about a woman who got away—and the scale of its emotion is not overwhelming—and that is to say that the song suggests significant regret but not a grand passion (it’s not hard to identify with the sentiment, whereas the extremity in traditional blues sometimes inspired awe, fear, pity). “I’m a Hero” is a declaration of humility and love, and it borders on the sanctimonious: it’s an irony that affirmations of simplicity can seem so judgmental of others—arrogant. Yet, Keb Mo’s voice prevents the words from seeming as overbearing as they could be.

The metaphor of a suitcase as portable identity and home and a collection of trouble is at the center of the song “Suitcase,” in which two people, each with a suitcase, come together: “Well, the house got too small,/ and the bags got too big./ We were holding on to everything/ we ever said or did.” Trouble comes, and divorce is threatened—and “I had to get down on my knees…beg her to let me stay.” The narrator realizes they have to let the baggage go.

“Whole ‘Nutha Thing” could be a blues rewrite of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and it’s a song in which a man talks about not being interested in drugs or charity but being interested in women. In “I See Love,” the narrator speaks of his travels and stumbling into love. The reference to the international scene suggests that “the bluesman” is now able to see a wider world—he’s not as provincial as he might have been in decades past. He is cosmopolitan. There is also more optimism than pessimism in the music, and that is certainly healthy and pleasant; however, optimism is not fact or truth but attitude—and the blues has traditionally been about what had happened or was happening. It was irrefutable testimony—it was more than attitude; and at its best it was truth. How much does Keb Mo’s work embody his own life? How much does his work embody the facts that many people live with in the world?

Have some of us misunderstood the blues tradition? Has the tradition changed; and is it changing? “Man cannot express that which does not exist—either in the form of dreams, ideas or realities—in his environment. Neither his thoughts nor his feelings, his sensibility nor his intellect are fixed, innate qualities. They are processes which arise out of the interpenetration of human instinct with environment, through the process called experience, each changing and being changed by the other,” wrote Ralph Ellison in a commentary called “Richard Wright’s Blues,” about Wright’s great biography Black Boy, which told of striving toward enlightenment and individuality in the brutal southern United States among ignorant pale and dark Americans (Living With Music, Modern Library, NY, 2001; page 112). In the work of musicians such as Keb Mo and Cassandra Wilson I hear a blues music that has true relation to the tradition as I understand it and that also reflects some of the opportunities and perceptions of contemporary life. However, it is possible to respect the form of the music and lose the depth of the content—and that loss I also hear in some of the music being produced today.

A vow to be what someone needs—a ship on the ocean, or water in the desert—is the promise made in “I’ll Be Your Water.”

Keb Mo’s collection Suitcase closes with “Life is Beautiful,” written by Keb Mo with Colin Linden, a song in which Keb Mo sings, “Life is beautiful./ Life is wondrous./ Every star above shining just for us./ Life is beautiful./ On a stormy night,/ somewhere in the world/ the sun is shining bright.”

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has written also about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared inThe African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.

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