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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Kind of blues
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Keb' Mo'
Sunday, Barrymore Theatre, April 1, 8 pm

Keb' Mo's comfort with himself is not something everyone is comfortable with. Blues purists have been critical of the way his stylized albums evoke the easy-listening elements of pop-rock and jazz.

That doesn't bother Mo', 55, who has never claimed the mantle of a traditional blues artist. He grew up in baby boom-era Southern California, and his music is as much a product of L.A.'s '70s singer-songwriter movement as anything else.

Ever since the actor/musician was cast in the role of a Delta bluesman for an L.A. theater production of Rabbit Foot, the influences of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters have been at the core of his work. But his deep respect for traditional blues doesn't mean Mo' has tried to re-create an old-time sound.

His Grammy-nominated 2006 release, Suitcase, is not so emotionally blue. The bookend tracks, 'Your Love' and 'Life Is Beautiful,' brim with joy and peace. Mo's smooth, silky vocals are miles away from the barroom grit often associated with the genre.

If that's a problem for critics, Mo' is too grounded in his craft to notice. The title Suitcase, after all, suggests letting go of one's personal baggage. 'The music represents life happening in all of its shades and shapes,' says Mo'. 'I hope that spirit is conveyed to the listener.'

For sure, the laid-back, polished production of Mo's records has broadened his fan base beyond the blues faithful. He's widely played on Triple A radio, and among his eight albums, three have won Grammys in the category of Best Contemporary Blues album.

Born Kevin Moore in Compton, Calif., Mo' got his big break when legendary roots violinist Papa John Creach, of Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship fame, heard him and his band jamming at a rehearsal space. He hired them on the spot.

Mo' portrayed Robert Johnson in Can't You Hear the Wind Howl, a documentary narrated by Danny Glover. He has also appeared in episodes of Touched by an Angel and The West Wing.

Among Mo's most recent accomplishments: He co-wrote a song with the Dixie Chicks that was nominated for a Grammy this year. Even the title of that song, 'I Hope,' is optimistic. So go ahead, file Keb Mo' under blues ' easy, happy blues.

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