September 2001

Keb' Mo' - Big Wide Grin
Sony LK 63829
Released: 2001

by John Crossett

Musical Performance **1/2
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment **1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Keb’ Mo’ burst onto the musical scene in 1994 with his eponymous debut album of real acoustic blues -- an album that had the whole audio world buzzing (and earned him a Grammy in the process). Here was the successor to aging blues artists such as Taj Mahal, B.B. King, et al. The disc earned accolades not only from the music press, but from the audiophile rags as well. Since then, we blues fans have been waiting in vain for him to follow up on that triumph. Mo’ (real name Kevin Moore) has turned out three more albums, all of which lean more in the commercial pop/blues direction (emphasis on pop) than the rural, delta-style sound of his debut effort.

Sadly, Big Wide Grin continues that trend. There is nothing wrong with Big Wide Grin, it’s just that, well, Keb’ Mo’ has so much ability, and the blues are so much a part of him, that it’s a crying shame he chooses not to come to grips with its past. One can hear elements of the blues in all his songs, but the problem is, he buries those traces deep under the pop-song stylings that sell records.

After listening to Big Wide Grin, I also wonder if Mo’ is starting to run out of original material. Of the 12 songs on the disc, three are pop covers, one is a semi-spiritual ("Grandma’s Hands") and, finally, there's a truly horrendous version of "America The Beautiful." While his own songs here are the equal (for the most part) of anything he’s written, except that fabulous debut album, of course, his attempts at bluesifying pop songs using a flute ("Big Yellow Taxi") and vibes ("Isn’t She Lovely") don’t work at all. Oh well, I guess everyone is entitled to a few clunkers -- it’s just too bad they all appear on one album.

The sonics on Big Wide Grin are much more enjoyable. On the plus side, the soundstage is wide and there is even some depth (not at all typical of most pop recordings). It’s easy to follow each instrument. Vocals are clear and full-bodied. And the acoustic guitar sounds real. On the debit side, the drums sound as if they’ve been put through a processor of some sort. And while the bass throbs and purrs, it’s a tad too muffled for the real thing. But the best thing about this album is that the mastering job was done by Doug Sax, so you know you're going to get the best sound available. (It’s not Doug’s fault if the tape isn’t all it could be, right?)

Keb' Mo's debut album marked him as a musician to watch, one to carry the torch of the blues into the 21st century. It’s a shame that he has not yet fulfilled that promise. We’ll have to wait at least one more album to see if he can and will. I’m no longer holding my breath. Still, if you're a fan of his recent work, Big Wide Grin will keep you happy, as Keb Mo’ has a success formula that he hasn’t deviated from lately. It just doesn’t get a recommendation from me.