Keb’ Mo’ on Tour: Behind the Scenes with Musician Michael B. Hicks
Newly arrived in Singapore, the band headed straight from the airport for the familiar Golden Arches and a welcome taste of home. Half a world and half a day away, it can be a challenge to stay connected to everyday places and to the people that matter. As tour dates have stretched across time and continents, the newest and youngest member of the Keb’ Mo’ band has placed a premium on learning how to maintain relationships complicated by distance. It hasn’t been easy. When the band opened for Earth Wind & Fire in New Zealand, Michael was so excited that he picked up the phone to share the joy with his father, only to remember that the senior Mr. Hicks was fast asleep in a different place, and on a different day.
His bandmates have been Mike’s relationship teachers. Michael describes his colleagues as easygoing and supportive, an extended family. They take their cue from the bandleader whose respect for his fellow musicians shines on and off the stage. While in Melbourne, Keb’ Mo’ learned that Michael’s younger brother had just become engaged. Keb’ immediately called stateside to offer his congratulations. The Grammy Award winner is equally as gracious to his fans, expressing his genuine gratitude to the audience before and after each show. The “thank you” is heartfelt. Says Michael, “Keb’ is the epitome of cool. He’s who you’d want to work with and be like.”
Talking with Michael Hicks, it is clear that the character traits he values and admires in his bandmates are deeply engrained within this young musician as well. He speaks with pride and deep respect of the parents who raised him in a small, middle Georgia town in a spiritual household where gospel and Stevie Wonder music played important roles. Mike recalls singing with his grandmother and penning his first song, “The Lord Is Always with Me”, at age 4.
Music wasn’t always his first love, though. As a schoolboy, basketball came first. Piano and organ lessons held little interest and ended quickly. It was only late in high school that Michael realized music was his calling. He had always enjoyed words and poetry, reading Langston Hughes and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He liked the wordplay inherent in hip hop and rap music. When his mother challenged him to use literary devices to write music for her children’s ministry, he accepted. Of the twelve songs on the choir’s 1998 recording, Michael Hicks wrote ten.
High school honors were followed by a college education in the business of music. Mike supplemented academics with extracurricular activities that included playing organ for a local church. The self taught musician started his own band, and he wrote a play. Yes, that’s right. Michael wrote and directed a drama, 1301: The Yard that was performed to enthusiastic reviews in Tucker Theatre on the Middle Tennessee State campus.
Following his 2005 graduation, Michael began to get calls. Come play keys for this session; sing back-up for us. Our keyboard player just pulled out; tour with us? The work was good, but not enough. There were times when hard choices had to be made, including which utilities to keep. A car was repossessed, and an eviction notice delivered. Then a friend called and said that “Kevin” had just moved to town from California and needed a back-up singer for television’s Memphis Beat. O’kay. Mike went to the session. He was floored when he recognized guitarist Steve Cropper in the studio. Kevin was friendly and unassuming. Michael had no idea that Kevin Moore and Keb’ Mo’ were one and the same person until after the session ended and an internet search was completed.
Thankfully, Kevin called again. Michael was asked to play organ on “I See Love”, the theme song for CBS’s Mike & Molly, co-written by Josh Kelley and Keb’ Mo’. Michael honestly felt his session play that day had been subpar, but in spring 2011 the phone rang once more. This time Mike was invited to go on tour with the Keb’ Mo’ band as keys/organ player and back-up singer. It’s an opportunity that Michael doesn’t take lightly.
During the last year Michael Hicks has seen the world. He has stayed in fancy hotels, feasted on grilled kangaroo loin and played the Sydney Opera House. He has also been first hand witness to the hard work and dedication that a successful band and tour require. He has watched guitarist/mandolin player Jeff Paris spend thirty to forty-five minutes in soundcheck to isolate a particular frequency on the guitar. Paris and Keb’ Mo’ are both very particular with respect to the band’s sound. Both musicians practice their craft continuously, on stage, off stage, on the bus, walking down the street. Constantly.
Michael feels that touring has brought a new level of maturity to his musicianship. There is a shared band commitment to an overall vision, a vision that requires songs be handled with care in order to preserve the heart of the music. It can become redundant to play the same songs at each tour stop, but the band knows that this may be the first time the audience has heard the music played live. The setlist is dynamic and the band routinely discusses what has worked, what doesn’t and the songs that the band is excited to play.
The hard work and travel have left little time for individual pursuits, but Michael continues to perform and record with his own band, Funktional Punctuation, also known as Mike Hicks & the Funk Puncs. The band’s music is highly reflective of 1970′s soul, gospel and the sounds of Al Green. The twelve piece band has added slides, mandolin and banjo to the mix since Mike’s introduction to Keb’ Mo’ and country soul. Mike explains that the music is very different from the limited palette offered on commercial radio. His lyrics offer social commentary, political comment and the poetry of friendship. The band’s planned album is a work in progress; recording is expensive and Michael is committed to live instrumentation in the studio.
Michael says that he and his mentor have discussed the likelihood that the young musician’s talent may eventually take him in an independent direction. Until that day sometime in the future, Mike is fully committed to Keb’ Mo’s vision. ”Whatever he needs, I’m there.” Michael has made a point of enjoying all the incredible moments of the last year in real-time, and of documenting those moments for the future. The unofficial tour historian, he has taken hundreds of photographs, recorded video and logged his impressions of the Keb’ Mo’ tour 2011-2012. Originally intended for the enjoyment of his family, the following video is now shared with all of us and offers a glimpse of life behind the scenes with the Keb’ Mo’ band and Michael B. Hicks.