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A Conversation with Keb’ Mo’

The singer-songwriter brings his blues-infused polish to Strathmore this week

Keb’ Mo’ will perform at the Strathmore this week. Photograph courtesy of the artist

On his latest release, The Reflection, Keb’ Mo’ embraces a sound that he’s been drifting towards for over a decade. Traces of the Robert Johnson influence that permeated his 1994 eponymous break-out are still present, but this recording owes more to the restrained soul of Bill Withers or the intimacy of ’70s-era singer-songwriters than it does to classic blues. Mo’ himself sees the new album as just the latest step in a natural progression.

“I like to explore. I like to go different places. I like to challenge myself in different things, but also maintain a sense of honesty,” says the guitarist-songwriter. He’ll be in town tomorrow to kick off the 2011-12 season at Strathmore, along with opener Rebecca Pidgeon.

The artist formerly known as Kevin Moore served as a sideman throughout the ’70s and ’80s, beginning with a stint backing Jefferson Airplane violinist Papa John Creach. During this time, he also served as a staff songwriter for A&M Records. Given this experience, the blending of styles on The Reflection comes as no surprise. Recorded at his home studio in Nashville, the album was two years in the making. Mo’ is quick to point out that though the entire process was a labor of love, the easy-going nature of the 12-song set belies the amount of work it took to craft these tunes and whittle them down to their true emotional essence.

“It was challenging because I was out of my element, “ Mo’ explains. “It was the record I wanted to make, but it turned out to be a lot harder than I expected it to be.”

The album’s eclecticism is reflected in the diversity of featured guest artists. Collaborators include neo-soul singer India.Arie, country star Vince Gill, and smooth jazz saxophonist Dave Koz, among others. By giving his songs a polished sheen, Mo’ risks alienating blues purists who were among his chief proponents in decades past. On the other hand, he’s making music that has a wider appeal and the potential to give him far greater exposure. Either way, the 59-year-old veteran is not worried, saying he’s simply following his own muse.

“One of the things I like to do is operate from confidence as opposed to fear. I want to make the best music possible with the ability I have and the tools that were given to me,” says Mo’.

Keb’ Mo’ is open about not wanting to “ram the new album down people’s throats,” so Thursday’s audience can expect material from the new release mixed with older songs from his deep catalog. In the end, Mo’ doesn’t want the concert experience to be about which songs he does or doesn’t play, but rather the feeling each person walks away with after the show.

“I try to tell the truth the best I know how,” he says. “I’d like them to walk away feeling better than when they walked in. Feeling cared for and feeling appreciated. It’s just about being present.”

Keb’ Mo and opening act Rebecca Pidgeon will perform at the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday, September 15. Tickets ($38 to $58) available at Strathmore’s Web site.

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