Emerging Headliner

Keb' Mo' live at Union Chapel

Three-time Grammy award-winning artist, Keb’ Mo’, graced the prestigious Union Chapel stage on Tuesday night for the London date on his Hot Pink Blues tour. A bluesy guitarist and singer with 11 albums under his belt, it was clear from the way that he quietly strolled onto the stage that he was very much at home here from the get go.

With an artist like Keb' Mo', it is pretty inevitable that there will be an eclectic range of guitars in tow - and there is: all his axes are to die for, but in particularly his green Gretsch, currently Keb's favourite, which he describes as, "the colour of a '57 Chevy". He also has one in black (why not?). And for any real guitar geeks out there, he has a fantastic custom made pedalboard: to have a crack at emulating Keb's sound, you'll apparently need a Mesa Boogie Flux-Five, several Empress EQs and compressors, a Boss chorus, a boost, and a delay, and if you want to go wireless (which Keb' Mo' does often) without losing any tonal quality, add a pair of very sweet sounding Lectrosonics R400A wireless receivers, which sit flush into the back of Keb's board.

Sitting amongst a quiet, older audience, there seemed to be a gentle buzz of anticipation that was very much amplified by rapturous applause when Keb’ Mo’ appeared from behind the curtain. This guy's stage presence and solo guitar opening of Suitcase put everyone immediately at ease and quickly transported us from the busy hectic Upper Street to a small, unassuming smoky bar in New Orleans (the on-stage smoke machine fulfilling the job of the punter’s cigarette smoke). With a wittiness that was clear from the beginning, Keb’ Mo’ jokingly told the audience, “I prayed before I came on stage." Hanging on his every note, the audience giggled and whooped enthusiastically at the musicianship and lyricism that Keb’ and his band offered throughout the show.

Backed by drummer, Casey Wasner, bassist, Stan Sergeant, and keyboardist, Michael B.Hicks, Keb’ Mo’s band provided a secure musical foundation on which Keb’s brassy vocals and fiercely melodic guitar sat on top of; these are incredible musicians who know when to shine, and when to support. If we thought this gig would be down-tempo and relaxing, Keb’ Mo’ quickly let us know that this was very much not the case when the band burst into the up-tempo, snare-driven, Am I Wrong. The blues master defiantly sings: “now tell me if I’m wrong to fall in love with you”, with an air of cheekiness echoed in the melodic guitar lines between phrases; a sentiment that would reverberate around the chapel throughout the night.

It was during Tell Everybody I Know that the band really came alive. WIth Michael B. Hicks providing the shoulder-shuffle dance moves, and Stan Sargeant grooving behind the bass, the band really got into it throughout the night, with Keb’ and Stan even leaving their positions and strutting together at the front of the stage.

From jokingly pointing to a woman high up on the balcony saying, ‘I’m going to pretend that this beautiful woman just left me now’ (followed by the light but jealousy-laden giggles of the female audience members), to moving his mic around and singing to the different sides of the church in the solo Loula Lou, Keb' very much involved us in the musical journey he took us on; we were interactive passengers, not spectators.

Highlights of the evening were the very amusing Shave Yo Legs, and More Than One Way Home, which included an incredible bass solo from Stan; it left a strong feeling that as long as there is music, everything’s going to be alright. Another stand-out moment occurred towards the end of the night, when each member of the band got to sing a chorus of The Door: those boys can sing! Soulful, melodic interpretations of the melody in their unique styles. I especially loved Michael B. Hicks, who brought the gospel vocal runs, at which point I lost all composure and enthusiastically pointed and fanned my hands at him (we were in a church after all, and if you’ve been to a gospel church, you will know the exact wave).

However, my absolute favourite of the night was Don’t Have To Explain, which moved me almost to tears (which is a rarity). It was in the latter that the soul and emotion of Keb’ Mo’s guitar playing really shone; it almost felt as though his guitar was a reincarnation of Mahalia Jackson coming back to sing in the church one more time: pained, emotive, and glorious.

It is a testament to Keb’ Mo’s personality, both in his singing, playing, lyricism, and the short retorts to the audience between songs, that he is all about the music. He has an innocence that has been widely lost in modern music today; there was no ego here, just a great musician who appreciates and loves music and treats it as something magic and sacred. Who he is as an artist and human being broke any barriers that come with a star being on a big stage. He stirred in us a genuine feeling that we are all one, journeying through life’s ups and downs, sharing mutual experiences; loving, laughing, crying together, and it all being ok.

With two standing-ovations and a generous encore, I left the Union Chapel with my spirit uplifted, and a gentle smile on my face.

Review by Kat Deal