She sings blues, and then some

Boston Globe, November 12, 2006

Shemekia Copeland sings the blues. This fact alone sets her apart from virtually all the singers of her generation. And at age 27, with four albums to her name on Alligator Records, the Chicago-based contemporary blues powerhouse label, she’s already amassed a considerable portfolio – and she’s just getting started.

In many ways Copeland, who visits the Regattabar on Thursday, is a blueswoman of the old school. Hers is an unornamented gutbucket sound delivered with force and flair, steeped in the music’s black working-class roots and augmented by the defiant, seen-it-all sass common to many great female blues singers, from Big Mama Thornton on down the line.

Nevertheless, on the phone from her home in Chicago, Copeland, who is as refreshingly forthright in conversation as she is in performance, rejects the label of blues traditionalist.

“No way!” she says. “I’m always the one who wants the music to grow and evolve. Traditionalists want the same thing over and over. I do a lot of different things.”

And it’s true. Since her versatile debut, “Turn the Heat Up,” each of her albums has a distinct vibe, from the rock ‘n’ roll on “Wicked” to the funk of “Talking to Strangers” and the deep soul of “The Soul Truth,” released last year. Of course, since all these genres proceed from the blues, it’s just as fair to say that Copeland is bringing them home. The blues is in her nature.

“I do sing blues,” she says. “If I sing soul or rock ‘n’ roll, when it comes out of me, there’s a bluesy feeling to it.”

Not incidentally, Copeland grew up in the blues, observing her father, the late guitarist Johnny Clyde Copeland, compose and practice each day in the family’s small Harlem apartment. Shemekia credits her parents not just for her musical inclinations, but also for the “good raising” that has helped her forge her own career.

On first hearing a 17-year-old Copeland sing at a New York club, Bruce Iglauer, the founder of Alligator Records, says he recognized some of her father’s signature traits.

“She’s very much her father’s daughter,” Iglauer says. “He was a fighter, a boxer, before he became a musician. He had a slight chip on his shoulder, and he could be very funny.”

But what most moved Iglauer to sign Copeland to a deal, overriding his skepticism of young prodigies, was less the singer’s parentage than the uncanny power of her sound.

“She had the voice, presence, and emotional depth of somebody years her senior,” Iglauer says. “And she invested herself in the words. She was’t singing the outside of the music, she was singing the inside of the music. She understood the music with great depth, emotion, and soul.”

Often funny and sometimes sad, Copeland’s songs deploy classic themes of love lost and found that are apt to elicit knowing smiles, especially from women in the audience. In a frequent motif, a woman confronts her man’s dishonesty or limitations and decides to lift anchor rather than put up with his mess.

It sounds real for a reason, Copeland says: “I don’t sing it unless I’ve lived it. Without telling you too much, I’ve had my share of relationships.”

She hastens to clarify, however, that she’s not on a vindictive crusade. And it’s abundantly clear from her songs that Copeland is about attitude, not anger.

“The writers I work with, we can get on a man’s case, but we don’t want to offend anyone,” she says. “I love men! It’s just, sometimes they do dumb things.”

Though these tales are, for now, Copeland’s bread and butter, she’s just as effective when she turns to such topics as the barrenness of today’s musical landscape or the joys of a long gossip session at the beauty shop. Particularly powerful is her take on “Ghetto Child,” a haunting, down-tempo number by her father. It all suggests that Copeland has plenty more to offer and is just entering her prime.

But with her own four albums as well as the blues show she hosts on Sirius satellite radio, she is already doing more than her part to keep the blues alive.

“I’ve been fighting the blues fight as long as I can remember, trying for the music to not get dissed,” Copeland says. She acknowledges that it can often seem an uphill battle, in a market obsessed with the ephemeral and new. But she is determined to persevere.

“I feel like the alien from outer space,” she says of being a blues singer today. “But at the same time, I’m not going anywhere.”