Keb’ Mo’ performs for a sold-out house at The Birchmere on Feb. 20, 2023. (Photo by Will Colbert)
The Blues is a grand institution. Kevin Moore, better known as Keb’ Mo’, is one of today’s most recognizable faces of that institution. He is regal yet approachable, much like The Birchmere, the hallowed venue in Alexandria, Virginia, which he recently visited for two nights. The five-time Grammy Award-winning Compton bluesman performed a sold-out show there on Monday.
The Birchmere sits discreetly behind an AutoZone steps away from residential housing. At almost 57 years old (26 in its current location), the well-loved concert hall seemed an appropriate place to host a proven talent like Keb’ Mo’. Full of luster, the joint has character, and when filled, as it was this past President’s Day, the venue comes to life.
On Feb. 20, fans eagerly awaited the evening’s events. The Birchmere has a supper club-style layout — first come, first seated. Everyone receives a deli-style ticket at the box office when they enter the building. A man announces the seating order, rewarding the early arrivers — G46, G47, G48. It was like a game of bingo, where everyone won.
Blues enthusiasts entered the main music hall upon having their numbers called. Old friends greeted one another. Strangers shared tables. Servers broke character as they laughed at their customer’s playful teasing. It’s a scene regular visitors expect from the 500-seat venue and an energy fit for the man who sings “Life Is Beautiful.”
The opening act, folk musician Anthony D’Amato, was equally charming. The one-person band strummed his guitar while singing whimsical, witty, and heartwarming songs. D’Amato was a pleasant surprise to many expecting a straight shot of Keb’ Mo’.
Al Green’s “Here I Am” played in the background as the man of the hour and his band stepped onto the stage. The overture gave way to Keb’ Mo’s first song of the night, “Rita.” The tune’s upbeat tempo, driven by a mean kick drum, contradicted the lyrical content. The song is about a man’s longing to reconcile with a lost love. He messed things up with Rita, and he wants her back.
Many have a misperception that the blues is melancholy music. After all, another way to say you’re sad is that you have the blues. They don’t realize that the blues and gospel are the foundations of all modern music. The twisting roots of America’s musical foundation are far-reaching. The blues can be sorrowful but also sentimental, sensual, and stimulating. Keb’ Mo’ delved into these feelings during his performance, but he was mostly there to have a good time.
Like a Compton cowboy, Keb’ Mo’ was back in the saddle as he took the audience on an excursion through his neighborhood during the performance of “Good To Be (Home Again).” He played the guitar while singing about the simple pleasure of being in a familiar place, surrounded by familiar faces.
Watch the official music video for “Good To Be (Home Again)” by Keb’ Mo’ on YouTube:
If the Grammys and countless other achievements weren’t enough, Keb’ Mo’ also has IMDB credits. He played Robert Johnson in the 1998 documentary Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? The film was about the music and short life of the mysterious blues musician. Johnson’s delta blues influence was evident during Keb’ Mo’s performance of “Every Morning.” Mo’ rocked back and forth as he sang the ballad. He switched his guitar style to a slide technique midstream. It sounded like he was playing two different instruments, one polished, the other gritty — an impressive display of guitar mastery.
Storytelling is as central to the blues as a 12-bar chord progression. “I love the character in this song. His name is Junior. Junior is cool. Junior drinks a lot….” Keb’ Mo’ said of the protagonist in “I Remember You.” The Chicago-style blues tune had feet tapping and heads bobbing. It wasn’t exactly a juke joint at the Birchmere, but we were getting there.
The mostly sedentary audience hopped to their feet during the encore performance of “She Just Wants to Dance.” Women slid into the aisles and danced without partners. Swaying on the two and four, as the song’s lyrics go. The indomitable 71-year-old was over two hours into his performance, and it didn’t appear that he intended to stop rocking until the neighbors came knocking. But all things, even incredible performances, must come to an end.
Other highlights from the show include performances of:
- “‘62 Chevy, ” Good To Be (2022)
- “The Medicine Man,” Americana Rock (2021)
- “Life Is Beautiful,” Just Like You/Suitcase (1996)
- “Government Cheese,” Live and Mo’ (2009)
- “Suitcase,” Suitcase (2006)
- “Shave Yo’ Legs,” Keep It Simple (2004)
- “Henry,” Slow Down (1998)
- “Dangerous Mood,” Just Like You/Suitcase (1996)
- “The Worst Is Yet to Come,” BLUESAmericana (2014)
- “Marvelous To Me,” Good To Be (2022)
Here are some photos from Keb’ Mo’s performance at The Birchmere on Feb. 20, 2023. All photos are copyright and courtesy of Will Colbert.