with Pamela Means
The Barrymore Theater, Madison, WI • August 16, 2002
We’re a town what loves our blues, and the anticipation for Keb’ Mo’ was running pretty high among the crowd at the Barrymore. It’s a 40s-and-50s crowd, for the most part, but there are some younger folk scattered around; it’s also a very white crowd, but that’s the nature of the blues these days. You’d need a Ph.D. in sociology and another in ethnomusicology to figure that one out, but my guess is that hip-hop has seduced away all the younger people, especially African-Americans, who don’t want to hear about “that sad old stuff.” Then again, what the hell do I know about anything? I’m here, with my brother Jeff, on his birthday, and 969 other people, to rock.
Pamela Means gets us started doing just that. She’s solo, she’s biracial, she’s lesbian, she’s radical, and she’s got the wildest Afro this side of Ben Wallace — someone in my row suggests Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, which was mean but kind of apt — so the Mad-town crowd is inclined to like her from the start. But it’s her propulsive funk/folk/flamenco guitar playing, impassioned singing voice, and sly sense of humor that makes us all love her. She grew up in Milwaukee, so she knows Madison quite well (that reference to playing gigs at the Steep and Brew won her early), and she knows that she won’t get booed for doing her thing here.
Her work is fiery; the chorus to one amped-up soul piece goes, “To a racist cop / I’ll always be / Another black bitch / That’s all I be.” And she’s figured out some kind of way of playing regular acoustic folk chords on four strings and wah-wah effects on the top two, which caused quite a few jaws to drop hard onto the concrete floor. But she’s hilarious, which helps even things out; she joked about her sweat-towel being available on eBay and about how her album is critically acclaimed because she critically acclaimed it. It’s good stuff, and we eat it up for 30 minutes before she stomps on the effects pedal for the last time, smiles sweetly, and bounds off the stage. Ah: we love Pamela Means now.
It isn’t too long before Keb’ Mo’ lopes onstage, his impossibly long legs arriving a week or so before his normal-sized torso. He’s wearing his trademark straw hat and (to quote his latest album) a Big Wide Grin, and he looks as confident as all hell. Which he should, considering the ovation he receives before even playing Note One. “It’s nice to be back in Madison,” he chuckles, picking up his steel guitar and whipping up some slide work that’s half Mississippi Delta and half Los Angeles rhythm and blues.
Keb’ Mo’ is a revered figure in the blues these days, because he’s young (just 42, but he looks 30) and he’s fun and he’s the current best hope for crossover success. His albums, so far, haven’t measured up to that hope… but he’s on his way. And you can see why when he’s up on stage: the man is Charisma. When he announces, “I’m on my best behavior tonight,” with a sly look off to the side, he knows that the crowd’s going to boo lustily, which we do; he also knows that we’re going to laugh when he changes his tune: “This is a song about a big butt woman.” (Maybe you had to be there.) He launches into “Loola Loo,” a song he co-wrote with Bobby McFerrin on The Door, and it’s like a comedy routine. Everyone in here has the record (except me and my brother), and everyone here joins in on every chorus and every handclap. When Keb stops halfway through, just stops playing and singing and everything, and starts to tell us the story of how he met Loola Loo, how he saw her riding a bicycle and how she was just too fine to pass up, it somehow comes off as a sincere monologue, rather than sexist pandering. The man doesn’t have a mean bone in his body… which might be his only drawback.
Whether backed faithfully by guitarist/banjo man Clayton Gibb or all by himself, Keb’ Mo’ is a happy force of music. He loves children (his version of The Winstons’ horribly sappy “Color Him Father” turns into a really touching singalong), he loves Jesus (“The Door” is the only neo-gospel song I can stand since Prince’s “The Cross”), and he loves his audience. He has good reason, too; as he reminds us, the first time he ever performed as Keb’ Mo’ (as opposed to sideman Kevin Moore) was here in Madison, at The Chamber, which is now the King Club. Everyone’s yelling, like we helped make him what he is now.
What is he now? Well, he’s just about the greatest entertainer in the world tonight. Maybe not the greatest singer or guitarist or songwriter — he’ll never do anything unexpected or edgy or challenging — but as an entertainer, he really cannot be touched. He works the crowd like a pro, dropping Badger State references all over the place (The Norske Nook! Cheese!), being self-deprecating and confident in equal amounts, and his pacing is stunning. When someone shouts out a request for “She Just Wants to Dance,” he shakes his head and laughs, “It’s early yet.” (That sentence becomes a leitmotif for the rest of the night.) And when the requests start thundering from all over the hall, he just giggles at us, “It’s safe to say we’ve lost control.” So we stop, right on cue. It’s a little eerie.
Also a little eerie is how… well… how safe everything is. There is no menace, no edge, no right angles to any of the songs or performances. There are no Robert Johnson covers tonight, and even his Robert Cray song doesn’t have any oomph to it. He says he’s in a “dangerous mood” tonight, but we don’t really believe it: there’s no danger anywhere near here. Which is okay; but is it really rock and roll, or the blues, without any kind of surprise factor? And why am I getting a funny vibe about a black man (with a humorously truncated name) doing a sentimental song for a white crowd about the days in the South when people picked cotton by hand?
But even that worry goes away as we rock on towards the encore. He finally gives us “She Just Wants to Dance,” and the place goes nuts. He does “Give It What You Got,” and we all sing along. He closes with a bluesy, beautiful version of “America the Beautiful,” and even our secular-humanist university town crowd is singing right along. He finishes and listens to us for a second, then rises quickly and waves and is gone.
It was a hell of a show. I don’t know what it meant on any kind of other level — that’s for other, smarter people to figure out. But me and my brother and 969 other people had a great time for two-and-a-half hours, and left chattering and happy.