Today’s installment of the ongoing nonsequential current history of good music in New York continues with Shemekia Copeland, who played a sizzling show at BAM’s weekly outdoor series in downtown Brooklyn this past Thursday. A compactly built woman with a big voice, she got her start as a teenager back in the 90s, mentored by her father, the late blues artist Johnny “Clyde” Copeland. She credited her dad for “saving me from becoming a rapper” – and then told a hilarious anecdote about the kind of trouble she would get into as a second-grader, blithely serenading her classmates with blues lyrics whose suggestive subtext she didn’t yet understand.
What was most obvious from the first few notes of the show was how smart she is. As mighty as that alto voice is, she uses it judiciously. Copeland could sing jazz, or even opera, if she wanted to, but as a blues stylist, she’s more interested in bringing the lyrics to life than launching into endless volleys of generic Kelly Clarkson-style belting. Predictably, the moment that wowed the crowd the most was toward the end of the show, when she came out from behind the mic, went to the edge of the stage and vocalized without any amplification while the band kept playing. But even as she wailed, she didn’t go off into florid, cliched American Idol theatrics: instead, all the way through, what she was singing was a terse, biting, minor-key blues melody that would have been at home in any storefront gospel church in her native Harlem. Her band is yet another reminder that great singers never have a hard time finding great musicians to back them. The rhythm section of drummer Morris Roberts and bassist Kevin Jenkins was chill and in the pocket, taking their time building to some big crescendos, guitarists Arthur Neilson and Willie Scandlyn following Copeland’s lead by driving and coloring the songs rather than using them as launching pads for silly theatrics. The most powerful song of the show was a Johnny Copeland version of the old standard Blind Man Standing on the Corner, this one updated to a modern-day urban setting with a homeless kid sent away from school because he showed up without any shoes, “In this so-called free land,” as Copeland sarcastically put it. Neilson gently jangled and tremolo-picked as Scandlyn took a pensive solo, then turned it over to Neilson who picked it up with a fiery, distorted wail.
They went for an absolutely lurid, noir vibe on a long version of Copeland’s outlaw tale Never Going Back to Memphis, a spot-on, bitter account of a woman who’d become an accomplice only to be abandoned after she’d served her purpose. They brought it down to a long psychedelic interlude, Neilson’s surreal, sustained, sunbaked lines shimmering over Jenkins’ ominously rumbling drums. The opening number, I Ain’t Gonna Drink Your Dirty Water and the slow soul groove Salt in My Wounds moved from dark and suspenseful to an angry growl lit up by Neilson’s searing but tasteful solos. Not everything they played was blues, either. They did a couple of robust rock songs, one of them a defiant, Stonesy girl-power anthem, the other an unexpectedly Beatlesque command to snag whatever you can get your hands on in these new Depression days, with more than a little Hey Jude in the tune. And maybe by design, maybe not, the gospel-flavored Big Brand New Religion – inspired by Copeland’s childhood initiation in North Carolina gospel – worked around a hook straight out of Come Together. The band also went into laid-back wah guitar funk for a couple of tunes, including Mississippi Mud, offhandedly alluding to Hurricane Katrina.
As intensely as Copeland sang, in between songs she was relaxed and warmly conversational. She’s got a new anthology out, and explained that she owns has a bunch of other blues artists’ anthologies…but that all those players are dead. So she pondered why her record label would want to package her like that: “Are they trying to kill me? I’m only 33!” Copeland and band are on tour, as they usually are, with an upcoming NYC show at City Winery on Sept 27.