Blues Grammy Winner Keb’ Mo’ Goes Personal and Contemporary with “Oklahoma”(Album Review)

Keb’ Mo’ built his now legendary reputation as a bluesman but has proven to be equally adept in R&B and Americana-styled roots music.  The latter and rootsy blues are at the heart of Oklahoma, and like most of Keb’ Mo’s albums, this one reflects his personal passions and interests. We learned from Keb’ Mo’s recent collaboration with Ana Popovic (I Like It on Top), that he’s a spokesperson for female leadership, as depicted here with “Put a Woman in Charge,” featuring Rosanne Cash. The title track, written with Oklahoman native Dara Tucker, addresses racial issues. Taj Mahal guests on the environmentally oriented “Don’t Throw It Away,” and “This Is My Home” builds a positive case for immigration, featuring Christina/Latin pop star Jaci Velasquez on vocals. “The Way I’ addresses the growing topic of depression.

Ambitious indeed, but there’s some signature Keb’ Mo’ feel good blues songs and a killer love song duet with his wife in the mix too. All in, it’s the most personal and adventurous album he’s made in his decorated career. Keb’ Mo’ had this to say, “When you are in a certain part of your life, the concept of an album is woven into the process. All of these songs stemmed from important issues and topics worldwide that really resonated with me during the time we were recording the project.”

Keb’ Mo’ ceded the primary producer role to his friend Colin Linden who plays electric guitar aside Mo’s resonator on several tracks. Robert Randolph adds haunting lap steel to the title track. The instrumental configurations differ on every track, with only Keb’ Mo’, drummer Marcus Finnie, and, to a lesser extent bassist, Eric Ramey, the main constants. Two different groups of background vocalists are on two tracks with a string section on one. Horns and various instruments are sprinkled in on a few tunes.      

The opening “I Remember You” with dual guitars and dual keyboards gets the set off on a funky note before leading into the title track. The inspiration for it came from his first visit to the state in 2013 for a benefit show with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, upon which he witnessed the aftermath of a horrific tornado. He put together a melody then and laid the tune aside until he met Oklahoman native Dara Tucker at a songwriting session. They subsequently collaborated on a comprehensive co-write that touches on Native American connections, the deep musical history,  the natural and man-made disasters, and the longstanding fortitude of its western settlers. There’s a reference to “Greenwood/Archer and Pine,” known as “Black Wall Street,” which was infamously destroyed in 1921 in one of the most devastating massacres in US race relations. Randolph’s lap steel delivers the haunting feel that the song practically required.

”Put a Woman in Charge” can be taken as disgust with current government leadership and/or as a feminist anthem for women to be assertive. Who better to fill this role than Rosanne Cash, with whom Keb’ Mo’ had never worked with prior to this effort? In addition to the repetitive “Put a woman in charge,” sung with four background vocalists, here is one verse, emblematic of the anthemic nature of the tune – “The time has come/We’ve got to turn this world around/Call the mothers/Call the daughters/We need the sisters of mercy now.”

”This Is My Home” has spare musical accompaniment as does the Taj Mahal guested tune “Don’t Throw It Away.”  Keb’ Mo’ handles both “The Way I” and “Ridin’ on a Train” with just he and drummer Finnie. “I Should’ve,” done with more conventional accompaniment, is a relatable tune where the two former lovers go through a series of “what ifs.” “Cold Outside” is about love gone bad while the string-laden “Beautiful Music,” done in duet with his wife Robbie Brooks Moore, is one of the more touching love songs you’ll hear.

Keb’ Mo’ has spent most of his recent time producing and collaborating with others with exceptional results. TajMo won a Grammy. Popovic’s I Like It on Top has been considered by many her best album. He went into this project worried that he may not be on his A game with his own material. To his surprise, and certainly not ours, he achieves potent results. Don’t be surprised if another Grammy awaits.



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