Long and lean in his jeans, purple shirt, and hat, Keb’ Mo’ had Santa Barbara figured out from the moment he took the stage. “This is a happy town,” he told the at-capacity crowd, “I can feel the happiness factor.” Mo’ has fashioned a persona for himself that is one part itinerant bluesman, and the other high-flying international touring artist. The combination can be awkward, but overall the strange brew works, giving new life to a genre (traditional blues) that too often gets antiquarian treatment.
Mo’ appeared with a fine band-Les Falconer, Reggie McBride, Jeff Paris, and Clayton Gibb-and lots of cool guitars, including a bright red electric that he favored, and a reflective black model on which he used a slide. His subject matter was-unpredictably for the blues-solidly upper middle class. Lyrics ranged from a song about wanting to vacation in France (including a line about finding cheap tickets on the Internet) to “Suitcase,” the title track from his 2006 release. “Suitcase” was one of the night’s best numbers, even though Mo’, with characteristic self-deprecation, introduced it as a “long-ass song.” It’s a meditation on that overused expression “emotional baggage” and serves to out Keb’ Mo’ as something perhaps only the 21st century could produce-a bluesman who’s been in therapy.
Although-thanks to the ready wit and lyrical poise of the frontman-it all worked; to this listener the most serious music of the night was also the most playful. Mo’ sounded best on the numbers that allowed the band to dip into funk. At times he even recalled the buoyant, sophisticated groove of Johnny “Guitar” Watson. And it was also when Mo’s less earnest side came out that he seemed most likeable, such as when he offered to play in the nude, then took it back by saying that it would not be “appropriate in Santa Barbara. You got to go to Frisco to see that.” Fortunately, you did not have to go to Frisco to see what Mo’ brought to town on Friday, which was more happiness and a beat you could dance to.