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Grammy winner Keb' Mo' plans holiday show in Napa


It's not surprising that Keb' Mo' is often seen as a modern bluesman. His breakout album, 1994's "Keb' Mo'," covered two songs by blues legend Robert Johnson.

"People always ask me questions about the blues like I'm some kind of expert. I'm not. I know some things about it, probably more than most people, but I'm by no means an expert," he said in a recent phone interview.

Mo', who plays Wednesday night at Napa's Uptown Theatre, feels as much kinship with singer-songwriters Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne as he does with B.B. King.

"My tradition is all over the map," he said. "You define yourself, but the public decides who they want you to be. They gotta find a category for you."

Mo', formerly Kevin Moore, has just released "The Reflection," his first studio album in five years.

The album would be completely at home on a smooth-jazz station, but it also gets airplay on eclectic rock stations like KRSH, which has been featuring Mo's song, "The Whole Enchilada."

Mo' said he used to go into the studio and play, then put his best stuff on the record. This time he was more focused.

"For this record I took myself to another place. I wanted to make a record that's really cohesive musically," he said. "I didn't want to make a raw record. I wanted to make a really sophisticated record, not one where I just went in there and played and whatever came out came out."

But Mo' doesn't feel the album lacks vitality. "You don't have to sacrifice spontaneity for planning. The two can work together," he said.

One of the highlights of the new record is a cover of the Eagles' "One of These Nights."

Mo makes the song his own, and it's so different from the original that someday people will probably think it's a Keb' Mo' song.

Mo's upcoming show at the Uptown is billed as "Spirit of the Holiday," the title of a four-song EP he just released.

But that doesn't mean it's a holiday show. He'll play a few seasonal songs, but most of the material will come from "The Reflection" and his extensive repertoire of songs, dating back more than two decades.

Asked what makes his music distinctive, Mo' replied with one word: "Space."

Then he elaborates: "The silence between the notes."

That gets to the heart of Mo's warm, embracing music. His songs don't attack; they draw in listeners. That space between the notes allows time for introspection and interpretation.

I asked Mo', who has won three Grammy awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album, what he's most proud of in his life.

"I'm just proud of what I'm doing at any given moment, right now," he said. "I don't really like resting on laurels, because once you win an award, or you do a show, it's over. I focus on what's coming and feel like the best is yet to come."

Mo' said he was happy to get the recognition the Grammys offered, but "I like to focus on the music I'm making. At the end of the day that's what's gonna sustain me."

About a year and a half ago Mo', 60, moved with his wife and young son from his native Los Angeles to Nashville.

Asked if having a 4-year-old son keeps him young, he laughed and said, "I'm not sure it keeps me young, but it keeps me busy. It keeps me running all over the place."

Mo has said he'd like to live to be 100. Is he still hoping for that?

"Forty more years ... If I have all my wits about me, if I'm still playing, still writing songs, that'd be great."

Michael Shapiro writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @shapirowrites or see www.michaelshapiro.net.