For a style of music born in the Deep South of the 1800s, the blues proved amazingly durable, adaptable and ultimately modern. Blues got electrified in Chicago in the early 1900s, was rediscovered by young rock musicians in the ’60s and has blended with many other styles since then.
The blues will be alive and well, and forever young, at the 40th annual Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival, running Sept. 10-11 at Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville.
“The music is created now, even if it’s rooted in the past,” said singer, songwriter and guitarist Keb’ Mo’ (condensed from his full name, Kevin Moore), a headliner for the second day of festival, which will be devoted to the blues.
The festival’s blues line-up runs from 65-year-old Mo’ to Jonny Lang, 35, the North Dakota guitarist and singer hailed as a teen prodigy in the mid-’90s; and the thirty-something Kansas blues act Moreland and Arbuckle, fresh from its first album for the famed Chicago-based Alligator blues label.
The first day of the festival, devoted to jazz and pop acts, features singer Chaka Khan, Oakland drummer Sheila E. and multi-instrumentalist Brian Culbertson.
Known for blending his blues with folk, rock, jazz and country, Mo’ has lived for the past six years in Nashville, the country music capital, but the move hasn’t radically changed his music.
“I think Nashville seeped into my music long before I ever moved here, from listening to country music,” he said by phone from his home base. “But I just live here. I don’t try to work here or get into the country scene, even though I know a lot of people here, friends and colleagues. It’s a nice musical community.”
Famously dubbed “funky as hell” 10 years ago by slide guitarist and singer Bonnie Raitt, Mo’ has recorded songs ranging comfortably from the soulful “She Just Wants to Dance” and the humorous “Government Cheese” to the very bluesy “Dangerous Mood,” from his most recent effort, “That Hot Pink Blues Album,” released earlier this year.
“I like to mix it up,” Mo’ said. “I stole the first line of ‘She Just Wants to Dance’ from a Major Lance song, and I just took it from there.” Lance, a ‘60s rhythm and star, was known for polished dance hits like “The Monkey Time.”
Some people equate the blues with sad songs, but Mo’ doesn’t see it that way.
“The blues has sad stories, happy stories, grotesque stories, violent stories and a lot of humor, just like any genre.”
Mo’ said he plays a few old songs, but he writes or co-writes most of his music and enjoys collaborations.
“For next year, I have a record in the works, a collaborative record with (blues musician) Taj Mahal and myself,” he said.
“Taj has put a lot of energy and a lot of innovation into the blues. That’s why I love working with him on the record. It’s a privilege. I took my cue from him, as far as the permission to innovate, and mixed it up a little bit.”
Appearing at the Russian River event for the first time in 15 years, Mo’ said he looks forward to the date. “It’s been a long time.”
Moreland and Arbuckle, a blues trio based in Wichita, Kansas, will appear at the Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival for the first time this year.
The band’s guitarist, Aaron Moreland, 37, said he was converted to the blues as a college student, when he heard the classic “Death Letter Blues” by Son House.
“I grew up listening to classic rock, which draws most of its influences heavily from blues,” Moreland said. “‘Death Letter Blues’ changed my perceptions. It’s very powerful. Even when I hear it now, after hearing it a million times, it still knocks me off my feet. It’s the intensity of it, and the fact that one guy with one little guitar could get some amazing sounds.”
The trio that includes harmonica player and singer Dustin Arbuckle and drummer Kendall Newby produces plenty of sound, with Moreland playing lead, rhythm and bass lines within the space of a single song. While the group can rock out, it always comes back to the blues.
“Blues permeates about all of the music that there is, American music anyway, whether it’s soul or country or even punk rock,” Moreland said. “There are traditionalists still out there, playing blues, and there’s interpreters, and I definitely fall under the interpreter category.”
Traditional or interpretive, the blues continue to have relevance, he said.
“It certainly does for me and my bandmates, and hundreds of other bands I know of,” Moreland said. “I think some things are timeless. Blues as a genre is timeless.”
You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or email@example.com. On Twitter @danarts.