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Performing to a jam-packed house at the Appalachian Summer Festival in Boone, showbiz veteran Keb' Mo' and his band of virtuoso musicians thrilled with a perfectly programmed evening of Delta and country blues and Americana songs.
Allison Russell, an up-and-coming country and folk artist and activist, opened the show with a short but soul-stirring set of songs. Before going solo, Russell played with Rhiannon Giddens and others in Our Native Daughters, and bands called Po' Girl and Birds of Chicago.
Both Russell and Keb' Mo' are singer-songwriters. Both are multitalented. Both know how to make an audience sit up and pay attention – and dance in their seats.
Russell played clarinet and banjo while blending silky-smooth harmonies with her band-mates – polyrhythmic percussionist Elizabeth Pupo-Walker, versatile keyboardist Elenna Canlas, and acoustic guitar player Joy Clark. A mellow thread of sounds sewed the songs together, and there was delightful interplay between Clark's guitar and Russell's banjo.
An exciting and soulful performer, Russell opened her set with the soulful "The Returner." She is open about her fluid sexuality and her trauma-informed past, saying of her second song, an urgent and driving ballad, "This is a letter of forgiveness to my father." The Celtic-inflected "Hy-Brasil" was especially affecting. I can’t wait to hear what she does next.
Keb' Mo' started his set with "Muddy Water," a good-time danceable country-blues tune: "I love muddy water. It's dirty, but it feels all right." He then swung into "Everything I Need," a charming catalogue of what he might not have, but he has everything he needs.
He certainly has all the band anyone could want. One of the tightest ensembles around – Casey Wasner on drums and vocals, Dane Farnsworth on keyboards and vocals, and Zachariah Witcher on bass – backed Keb' Mo', who switched from Republic resonator guitar to Gibson acoustic to Stratocaster, depending on the needs of the song.
"Life Is Beautiful" from the Suitcase album (2006) is as warm and sweet as a July dusk, which featured Farnsworth on a show-stopping keyboard solo.
There is something both incredibly warmhearted and slightly devilish about Keb' Mo' and his music. He moves from the nostalgic "Good To Be (Home Again)," which includes the line "It's good to be anywhere," to "The Old Me Better." The latter song is a tongue-in-check letter to a woman who reformed him: "I liked the old me better. I was a lot more fun. ... Didn't take crap from anyone. … You made me a brand new man, but I liked the old me better."
"Shave Yo Legs" is another delightful love ballad in which he tells his lady, "You don't have to change your dress. You don't have to change your shoes," and, of course, "You don't have to shave yo' legs for me." It included a melodic bass solo by Witcher.
The other songs in the set included "Suitcase," "Am I Wrong," "Soon As I Get Paid," "All Dressed Up (in the blues)," "Gov't Cheese," "Perpetual Blues," "(you may not remember me, but) I Remember You," "Dangerous Mood," and "The Worst Is Yet (to come)." When called back for an encore, the band played "She Dance," to which some of us did, and "Henry," a tender paean to the bad old days and the good music that came out of them.
Keb' Mo''s entire set was masterfully programmed and executed. A brilliant showman, he kind of eases you into the music, revealing bits and pieces of his complex personality and intellect, then starts to accelerate and crescendo about half or three-quarters of the way through.
At 71, he let himself mock decrepitude for a few seconds, but what we got was a man in his prime, vital and charismatic, seemingly ready to rock as long as the audience could. He even took a long, energetic stroll out into the assembled crowd, accompanied by luscious blues licks.
All hail, Mr. Mo'. Long may he play.
It's been a spectacular Appalachian Summer Festival. It cranked up in late June with a song concert by Leslie Odom Jr. and will wrap on July 29 with a show by Lindsay Ell opening for Darius Rucker. Visit www.appsummer.org for more information.