Legend has it – and legends have everything – that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroad at midnight. In exchange for his soul, the devil granted him the ability of a master guitarist. Regardless of whether this event actually took place, what we know from the story it generated, in the looming shadow of Johnson’s legacy, is when one person with one guitar can so completely captivate an audience, people are willing to believe just about anything as to why.
It’s fitting that Grammy-winning blues artist Keb’ Mo’ portrayed Johnson in the 1997 documentary Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? Like Johnson, Keb’ Mo’ (the stage name of the Los Angeles-born Kevin Moore) can generate powerful magnetism with nothing but acres of soul and a guitar. Keb’ Mo’ grew up learning the fundamentals of Delta blues, but worked to modernize and diversify that sound beginning with his 1994, self-titled debut. That homespun, intimate sound of classic blues remained, but added were elements of folk, jazz, pop and soul. Instead of sounding pandering or phony like some modern, blues-rock acts, Keb’ Mo’ synthesized several decades of musical forms into a cohesive vision.
“Am I Wrong,” off that debut, demonstrates clearly what makes Keb’ Mo’ so compelling: The finger-picking and slide guitar work on display is locked-in and propulsive, indebted to traditional blues while feeling distinctly progressive. It was begging to be remixed, long before that was common practice, and sure enough electronic producers have latched on to it. While Keb’ Mo’ does perform with a backing band, he’s shown he doesn’t quite need one, which makes this solo appearance by him all the more intriguing. A man and his guitar, as Robert Johnson showed, can indeed prove to be legendary.
Washington Center for the Performing Arts,
512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11