Keb’ Mo’ is a four-time Grammy Award-winning Delta blues musician who has performed with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, Vince Gill, Sheryl Crow, Keith Richards, Gregg Allman, Buddy Guy, Metallica, and many others. He’s appeared on Sesame Street with Kermit the Frog, Grover, and Elmo, and on the series finale of the TV show, The West Wing. On this wintry December 18, 2019 evening, however, Keb’ Mo’ is starring in his live Jingle Bell Jamboree holiday show at Northwestern NJ’s Newton Theatre.
As audience members — many dressed in holiday sweaters — wait for the evening’s concert to begin, they notice lighted Christmas trees which line the front of a stage set with an assortment of guitars, an acoustic and an electric bass, an organ and keyboards, and a drum set.
The lights dim and tonight’s opening act, Alicia Michilli, enters smiling and asking, “How’s everyone doing?”
Opening with “The Edge,” Michilli’s powerful and bluesy voice fills the theater as she rhythmically accompanies herself on guitar.
After telling the audience about how she grew up in Detroit but has lived in Nashville for the past decade, Michilli performs “Full Moon.” Smiling as she soulfully sings, she strums her guitar, her bluesy country twang and bubbly personality appealing to the holiday crowd.
The audience sings along with her on “Back Down” before she performs her ballad, “Cut Me Loose.” Confessing, “This is the most vulnerable song I’ve written,” she impresses with her performance of “What If I Told You.” With its simple melody and sparse accompaniment, the song captivates the audience.
Following a soulful cover version of Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” Michilli asks, “Any Motown fans here? This is my Motown song.” Audience members clap along to the slow burning groove of Michilli’s original number, “Heartbeat,” her rhythmic guitar accompanying her dynamic vocal.
Singing out clear and true, she concludes her set with “Look Up,” a performance which earns her great applause.
During intermission, we take a moment to chat with Michilli as she meets and greets fans in the lobby. When asked about performing here in the Garden State, Michilli exclaims, “I think New Jersey is awesome — everyone I meet here is sweet and welcoming,” before concluding, “I feel very at home and loved here in New Jersey.”
Following intermission, the lights dim and a quartet of musicians — Stan Sargent on bass, David Rogers on keys, Casey Wasner on guitar, and Kevin Moore, Jr. on drums — takes the stage.
The crowd cheers as Keb’ Mo’, in his festive red plaid suit and stylish hat, enters welcoming the crowd.
Opening with the upbeat “Better Everyday,” Keb’ Mo’ impresses with his bluesy voice as he happily sings, “You gotta believe it’s getting better/Getting better every day.”
Backup vocals support Keb’ Mo’s lead on this appealing shuffle before he counts off and the band segues into the bluesy “Muddy Water.” Blue and orange lights move to the groove and David Rogers’ organ swirls as Keb’ Mo’ makes his harmonica sing prior to ripping off a tasty electric guitar solo.
The crowd cheers and Keb’ Mo’ and Co. launch into a funky reggae-inspired rendition of “Please Come Home for Christmas.”
Singing, “Bells will be ringing the glad, glad news/Oh, what a Christmas to have the blues,” Keb’ Mo’ plays the melody on electric guitar, easily winning the crowd over with his musical acumen and charming personality.
“Thank you Newton! How you doing?” asks Keb’ Mo’ before taking a seat on a stool and switching over from electric to acoustic guitar. Stan Sargent switches over to acoustic bass and Kevin Moore, Jr. plays with brushes as the group performs “Life Is Beautiful.” With its country feel, the audience sings along on the uplifting chorus, “Life is beautiful, life is wondrous/Every star above shining just for us” before Keb’ Mo’ ends the number scat singing to the crowd’s delight.
After announcing, “When I was a kid, my parents played records — I listened to Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra,” Keb’ Mo’ performs “Moonlight, Mistletoe, and You,” a lush ballad which features a David Rogers keyboard solo which echoes the sound of a complete string section and an inspired Keb’ Mo’ acoustic guitar solo.
The audience bops in their seats on the country rocker, “Shave Yo’ Legs.” Singing “You don’t need to change your dress/You don’t need to change your shoes/Go ahead, be wild and free/You don’t have to shave yo’ legs for me,” Keb’ Mo’ is accompanied by Casey Wasner on acoustic guitar and the rest of the band filling in on piano, bass, and drums.
Acknowledging, “That song is kinda old,” the band vamps and Keb’ Mo’ switches over to electric guitar for the humorous “Christmas is Annoying.” The audience laughs as Keb’ Mo’ sings, “I remember caroling and sledding down the hill/Skating on the pond, you know, it really was a thrill/But now the thrill is gone and all my credit cards are maxed/I’m running here, I’m running there, there’s no time to relax/‘Cause I’m all grown up and Christmas is really annoying.” To add to the novelty effect, mini Christmas tree lights flash to the music as keyboardist David Rogers plays his best rinky-dink organ solo.
The audience happily applauds and Keb’ Mo’ switches back to acoustic guitar for “Every Morning.” Announcing “This was the first song I wrote after a long time,” he keeps time tapping his foot while he accompanies himself on the guitar for this simple and sweet blues number.
Asking “Anybody here from Oklahoma?” Keb’ Mo’ performs the title track from his latest album, Oklahoma. After teaching the crowd the lyric, lights shine on audience members as they help sing the catchy chorus of this Bill Withers-type number which features a Keb’ Mo’ harmonica solo.
After a fan yells out the name of a favorite song, Keb’ Mo’ announces, “I’m not going to stay with the set list” and launches into “One Friend.” Audience members clap when they recognize the song’s bluesy guitar intro and Keb’ Mo’ sings, “All I need is one friend, to get me through the day/One friend, that never goes away.”
The crowd cheers and he follows up with the delightful “Old Me Better.” Fingerpicking on this humorous number, Keb’ Mo’ sings, “Well, I’d sleep all day, party all night/Did whatever I wanted, whatever I liked/You made me a brand new man but I liked the old me better.”
Switching over to a resonator guitar, a fan yells out, “Play it, Keb’ !” as Keb’ Mo’ launches into “Suitcase.” Feeling the blues as he sings his story, his interpretation elicits enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.
A highlight of the evening is Keb’ Mo’s rendition of the funky uptempo tune, “Am I Wrong.” Accompanied by Kevin Moore, Jr. on the drums, Keb’ Mo’s bluesy vocal has heads bopping in the audience as he plays with a slide up and down the neck of his instrument.
The audience cheers and Keb’ Mo’ changes over to electric guitar saying, “People think I’m from the South, but I’m from Southern California,” prior to the entire band backing him up on “More Than One Way Home.”
Audience members clap to the music on this Boz Scaggs-like number before Keb’ Mo’ solos with a slide on his electric guitar on this arrangement which features three-part vocal harmonies.
Kevin Moore, Jr.’s drum beat opens “Merry Merry Christmas.” Lights flash to the driving beat of this bluesy rocker where Keb’ Mo’ echoes the sound of The Allman Brothers’ Band with his soulful electric guitar solo.
Fans yell out “Yes!” as Keb’ Mo’ and Co. perform “Perpetual Blues Machine.” Heads bop and toes tap to the irresistible groove of this bluesy concoction as lights flash and the song builds in intensity all the way through to the conclusion.
For his final number, Keb’ Mo’ performs the infectious “The Worst Is Yet to Come.” After singing, “Woke up this mornin’/Wrong side of the bed/Had a heavenly night, you know/I’m feelin’ it in my head/Lord have mercy/And the day ain’t even begun/Well, I got a bad, bad feelin’/That the worst is yet to come,” Stan Sargent’s funky bass leads the way to a Keb’ Mo’ electric guitar solo.
Making his way down the steps into the audience, Keb’ Mo’ struts as he rocks out on guitar, traveling all the way up into the Newton Theatre’s balcony where he stops to play for the crowd. Audience members stand and dance to the irresistible groove, delighted as Keb’ Mo’ dances while he plays before making his way back to the stage to sing again. Audience members cheer as they rise to their feet in appreciation for Keb’ Mo’ and his talented band.
Keb’ Mo’ introduces his musical colleagues, pointing out that his drummer, Kevin Moore, Jr., is actually his son. Here, he and the musicians launch into their first encore number — the swinging blues tune, “She Just Wants to Dance.” As they play, Keb’ Mo’ dances to the groove, loose and free.
David Rogers rocks a swirling Hammond organ sound before switching over to a vintage ’70s piano sound. Ladies in the crowd stand and dance in place in the audience, everyone clapping along to the beat on this up-tempo number which ends in a flurry of light and sound.
The audience again stands and cheers and Keb’ Mo’ invites Alicia Michilli back to the stage for a rousing rendition of “Put a Woman in Charge.”
After the group performs this dynamic and rhythmic number, a fan happily calls out, “When are you coming back?” to which Keb’ Mo’ jokingly replies, “Tomorrow.”
The audience cheers and Keb’ Mo’ concludes with another highlight number of the evening, “This Is My Home.” Playing acoustic guitar accompanied by Casey Wasner on shaker and David Rogers on synthesized strings, Keb’ Mo’ tells a musical story about immigrants who come to this country, singing, “This is my home/This is where I belong.” The audience stands and cheers for this poignant performance before the band comes together downstage to take a well-deserved bow.
“Thank you so much!” announces Keb’ Mo’, adding, “Much appreciated — I hope to see you again soon.”
As audience members make their way out of the Newton Theatre auditorium, we chat with several members of the crowd who share their opinions about tonight’s Jingle Bell Jamboree concert with us.
Declares Brian from Randolph, “Keb’ Mo’ was wonderful tonight! I’ve seen him about 20 times and he is excellent every time. His voice is like butter, and he’s one of the few singers where you can understand every word he says.”
Brian’s wife, Laura, concurs noting, “He’s fantastic — one of a kind. He’s a great storyteller, and he connects with his audience where you can even feel it down to your toes — he moves you.”
Continuing, “I even traveled to Nashville to see him,” Laura confesses, “and I’m the one who called out for him to sing ‘One Friend’ and he changed the set list just for me!”
Maureen from Newton exclaims, “I loved Keb’ Mo’! I had never heard of him, but I came with friends who love him — now I’m a fan and I want to see him again.” Adding, “He tells great stories, he has a great personality, and I especially enjoyed seeing him right here at the Newton Theatre,” Maureen acknowledges, “I come here all the time — it’s such a small, quaint, and historic venue, and there’s not a bad seat in the house.”
Rick from Andover calls Keb’ Mo’s performance tonight, “Fantastic.” Recalling, “I’ve been a fan since the early 1980s,” Rick asserts, “He’s so great — his voice still sounds the same — and his dance moves are as cool as ever.” His wife, Judy, however, sums up her feelings in just three simple words when she exclaims, “Give us Mo’!”
To learn more about Keb’ Mo’, please go to kebmo.com. For information about future performances at The Newton Theatre — including Big Bad Voodoo Daddy on January 10, 10,000 Maniacs on February 29, and Jim Messina on March 13 — please click on thenewtontheatre.com.
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