In a time when pop idols still escaping pubescence rely on flashy gimmicks to keep an attention-deficit audience tuned in, it’s refreshing to know that one man with six strings, a warm voice and a song to share can still captivate a hall full of listeners.
That’s all bluesman Keb’ Mo’ needed to keep a packed Ponte Vedra Concert Hall in the palm of his guitar-calloused hands Jan. 29.
He didn't do it all alone. With him was multi-instrumentalist Tom Shinness and drummer Casey Wasner.
The set started mellow and fun, with Mo’ and Shinness injecting witty banter with the audience between songs like “Government Cheese” and “More Than One Way Home.”
Mo’ played his acoustic and occasionally used a Bob Dylan-esque harmonica, while Shinness alternated between the cello, guitar-harp and bass guitar.
On slower songs like “One Friend,” Mo’ used his solo acoustic playing and gentle, resonate voice to almost soothe the audience into a lullaby. Heads began to rest on the shoulders next to them. This night, however, was not going to be a slow dance. Rock and roll was built on the foundation that the blues laid down for it, after all.
This became clear when, roughly halfway into the performance, Mo’ stood up, calmly pushed his stool aside and — like it was something he had just remembered to do — ripped out a screaming guitar riff leading into the sultry “Dirty Low Down and Bad.”
Shinness and Wasner followed suit, and the entire atmosphere of the venue changed dramatically.
Couples who were just seconds ago pacified into their seats stood up to clap and sing along. Less inhibited concertgoers danced in the aisles, booze and popcorn in hand. Up on stage, Mo’ danced right along with them.
Mo’ told the audience that he had been fighting off a cough all day. Few would have noticed if he hadn't said anything about it, and the “frog in his throat” somehow only added to his Nashville charm. When he needed to take a quick break, Shinness took the opportunity to pick up his cello and pluck out an improvisation of the upbeat “When I’m 64” by the Beatles. The song selection was random, but he got the entire audience singing along.
Of course, it wouldn't have been an authentic blues experience without Mo’s infamous steel guitar — a relic from the days of roadside delta blues. The sounds and textures he could coax out of it were just as reminiscent of that era as the songs he played. Songs like “Muddy Water” were lyrically dripping with nods to delta legends, “If I never get to heaven, I don’t care. I've been down to the crossroads, ain't no devil down there.”
For many of the concertgoers, this was not their first time seeing Mo’ — some traveled from as far as Texas for the show. Many called out requests for songs from Mo’s extensive catalog, and he obliged most of them, pushing his set well into the evening. But on this night, with the audience packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the warm concert hall to hear the blues, things like set lists and schedules evaporated into the dreary night outside, leaving them to stomp their feet, sing along, and just enjoy the music.
And if that’s not what the feel-good blues is all about, maybe give the next pimply pop idol a try.