ALBUM DEPT: Oklahoma by Keb’ Mo’ Is More Than OK

25 years after his auspicious debut, the modern blues giant continues to set his own standard

Keb’ Mo’ Oklahoma, Concord Records 2019

Artist: Keb’ Mo’

Album: Oklahoma

Label: Concord Records

★★★★ (4/5 stars)


Sometimes there’s little distinction between emulating and imitating. In popular music, that divide is narrower still. The Beatles, the Stones, Elvis, Chuck Berry… all those early icons set a template for much of the music that followed in their wake. More recently, bands like the Strokes and the Black Crowes boasted a seminal style based entirely on the earlier inspiration of Led Zep, the Yardbirds, Free, and the like.

Keb’ Mo’ clearly learned a lesson or two from Taj Mahal, and while. he’s had a prolific and proficient career all on his own, the similarities in style are exceedingly obvious. Like Taj, Keb articulates a melodic form of the blues that’s both topical and tuneful, a sound that finds him unafraid to break boundaries and expand a few parameters at the same time. The fact that the two have recorded and toured together binds those common threads even tighter. Likewise, when their collaborative album TajMo was singled out as both Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album of the Year at the 39th Annual Blues Music Awards, the bond between the two men was all the more apparent. Happily, Keb’ received individual affirmation when he took home the title of Contemporary Blues Male Artist of The Year as well.

It also became clear that Keb’ and Taj now inhabit the same plain, given that it was Keb’ who claimed a Grammy — his fourth to date — when he was credited with kudos as both an artist and producer for TajMo at last year’s ceremonies.

 

VIDEO: I Remember You – Oklahoma – Keb’ Mo’

That said, Oklahoma marks the most pronounced statement of independence and assurance Mr. Mo’ has delivered to date. Tackling themes that are all imbued in today’s turgid political climate — women’s empowerment, immigration, romance, and all the implications that accompany an unsettled state of mind, he and his guests — Taj, Robert Randolph, Rosanne Cash, Jaci Velasquez and Keb’s wife, Robbie Brooks Moore — deliver a decisive set of songs teeming with both credence and conviction.  As Keb remarked in a press release accompanying the album, “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.”

Happily, he delivers on that contention. The forthright “Put a Woman in Charge” serves as an ideal rallying cry for those who believe that it’s long past time a female is given opportunity to take a leadership role and hopefully make a decisive impression moving forward. Clearly Keb’ is a real woman booster; when he played solo at Merlefest two months ago he picked a lady out of the audience and invited her to meet him backstage.

Hmmm…

He also proved himself an amiable individual when he spoke at a backstage press conference about his admiration for Taj Mahal and the ways Mr. Mahal has influenced him. That caring and concern are amplified in the album’s title track, written in the aftermath of the devastating tornadoes that ravage that state with such regularity. His empathy is obvious, making the song one of the most moving melodies on the album. Likewise, the track “This Is My Home,” featuring Ms. Velasquez, offers a poignant perspective of the problems that the immigration debate has inflicted on those at the border.

Ultimately then, Oklahoma becomes Keb’ Mo’s definitive declaration of independence, an album that sets him apart from all others, Taj included. After 25 years, he needn’t stand in the shadows of anyone else.

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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