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October 9, 1996

King Mackerel

King MackerelDon Dixon, Bland Simpson, and Jim Wann, King Mackerel & The Blues Are Running (Sugar Hill 1996) - King Mackerel is an all-you-can-eat musical feast created by Jim Wann (creator of the Broadway hit Pump Boys and Dinettes) and Bland Simpson (from Sugar Hill recording artist The Red Clay Ramblers).

For this recording, the dynamic duo is joined by long-time cohort and recording artist Don Dixon (known for his work with R.E.M. and The Smithereens, as well as being Marti Jones' better half). King Mackerel is set in a mythical hangout on North Carolina's Outer Banks, and revolves around a fictional review show designed to prevent commercialization of the Coast.

As a concept album, King Mackerel doesn't hold up. But as a collection of fun, toe-tapping pop songs, King Mackerel is one of the year's best sets.

Described as "one hell of a fish story," King Mackerel is all about life down East -- fishing, hanging out, joy riding, shag dancing, and talking trash. The show is set for 54 performances this summer at Washington's Kennedy Center, and future appearances throughout the country. But for now, you can enjoy the 18 songs on this original cast recording.

King MackerelThe album features cheery, uptempo numbers anchored by Simpson's piano work and the sweet harmonies of this trio. The standout song is "Shag Baby," a delightful three-part harmony number about shag dancing on the coast. Also featured are the uptempo "King Mackerel & The Blues Are Running" and "I'm The Breeze."

I've never seen the show, and can't say whether King Mackerel's album is a fair memento. But the album holds up remarkably well on its own, as Simpson and Wann merge their Broadway-oriented sensibilities with Don Dixon's pop stylings. All have great voices, and all contribute energetic performance to this album.

Some of these tracks deserve real exposure (but on what format? Country? Folk? Top 40?), and it's a shame they'll never receive it. For an hour-long performance by three entertainers whose hearts are 100% into the project, listen to King Mackerel.

Keb MoKeb' Mo', Just Like You (Okeh-Epic 1996) - On his second Okeh release, New Orleans-based Keb' Mo' builds upon his solid contemporary blues foundation. The result is a fresh, blues/pop/r&b sound that heralds the future.

Keb' Mo' (real name -- Kevin Moore) has been around the music scene for years. After playing with Pappa John Creach (of Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna) for three years, Moore landed a job at A & M Studios as a contractor and arranger of countless demo sessions.

Moore's first album was the little-noticed Rainmaker (1980) on Chocolate City Records, a subsidiary of disco-oriented Casablanca Records.

During the 1980's, Kevin started playing with the house band at an L.A. club, Marla's Memory Lane, where he met and jammed with such legendary bluesmen as Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Witherspoon and Albert Collins.

Completing his shift from a pop mode, Moore began a serious study of the country blues after landing a part in the Los Angeles' Theater Center's production of "Rabbit Foot" (1990). Building from this base, Kevin Moore evolved into Keb' Mo.

Keb MoSays Moore, "I'd go to see Quinton Denard's jazz band on Monday nights, bring my guitar and sit in, and start playing the blues. He'd look over the drums and holler, `Keb' Mo.' Like if I was playing jazz, I could be Kevin Moore, but if I was going to play the blues, I had to be `Keb' Mo'!"

In 1994, Moore released Keb' Mo, the second album on the newly-revived Okeh label (the original Okeh was the home to such famous r&b artists as Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Chuck Willis, and Big Maybelle). Keb' Mo' received considerable acclaim, and was awarded the "Country/Acoustic Blues Album of the Year" at the W.C. Handy Blues Awards in 1995.

In a departure from Keb' Mo's spare arrangements, Just Like You features a fuller studio sound built around a core band of Moore on vocals and guitar, James "Hutch" Hutchinson on bass, Laval Balle on drums, and Tommy Eyre on keyboards. Showing their respect for this budding talent, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne provide guest vocals on "Just Like You."

Keb MoIn addition to 12 originals by Moore, the album also includes a striking interpretation of Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down." Broadly speaking, two kinds of songs can be found on Just Like You: the twelve-bar blues in varied form; and a folk/r&b style descendent from Sam Cooke and Bobby Womack.

In the former mode, "Dangerous Minds," with its irascible lyrics and stinging electric lead guitar, would fit neatly into a B.B. King set-list, while "Mamma, Where's My Daddy," is a plaintive solo acoustic blues, featuring Moore's hot slide guitar work. At the other end of the spectrum are such pop-friendly numbers as "More Than One Way Home" and "That's Not Love."

You can expect Keb' Mo' to become an important artist, as he has the strength and talent to revive the blues and r&b format. Just Like You is a fair showcase for his talents.

-- Randy Krbechek

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