Malcolm X Abram: Shemekia Copeland sings the blues

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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Chicago blues singer Shemekia Copeland poses for portrait at her Chicago, Illinois home in May 2011. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Here in the 21st century, musical miscegenation is the name of the game.

The mash-up craze of the last decade helped. Pop music is filled with melanges of hip-hop. Electronica has seeped into contemporary R&B. The genre walls that seemed so large in the 20th century are constantly being leaped over by adventurous producers and artists.

But it’s not just up-and-coming artists in pop who try to mix things up. Many country artists have opined that some of the unspoken rules of the genre have become too codified.

There have always been jazz-based artists who have tried to appeal to younger listeners through contemporary sounds. Pianist Robert Glasper won a Grammy for best R&B album with Black Radio, a mash-up of jazz, R&B and hip-hop, that beat out works by more traditional artists R. Kelly, Anthony Hamilton, Tamia and Tyrese.

In the blues realm, you have recent “it” boy Gary Clark Jr., a singer and guitarist who on his debut album works very hard NOT to be reduced to the latest “blues revivalist/savior.”

Blues singer and songwriter Shemekia Copeland, who will perform Saturday at the Winchester Music Hall in Lakewood, is proud to represent the blues. As the Harlem-raised daughter of Texas-bred electric bluesman Johnny Copeland, the blues is in the 33-year-old’s blood.

Throughout her seven-album catalog, she has grown from an old-school, blues-shoutin’ mama to a soulful, powerful, yet controlled singer. And, as she told me a few years ago before a show at Tangier in Akron, she wasn’t corralled into singing blues and she didn’t fall into it because that’s the only way to get gigs in Harlem bars. She genuinely loves the blues but also reserves the right to push the music’s boundaries a bit as she has done on her recent albums Never Going Back from 2009 and her 2012 album, the Grammy-nominated 33⅓.

Copeland isn’t trying to reinvent the blues wheel and there are no jarring, forced dubstep/blues combinations. Rather, Copeland dips into her gospel and R&B bag and mixes strong originals co-written by producer Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers) and Copeland’s longtime manager John Hahn and cover tunes including her father’s slinky One More Time — all of her albums feature at least one song by him.

There’s also a pleasantly delicate take on Bob Dylan's I’ll Be Your Baby, Tonight and a jaunty version of Sam Cooke’s Ain’t That Good News. She turns the Randy Weeks-written, Lucinda Williams-recorded country hit Can’t Let Go into a greasy blues stomper.

The originals touch on social and economic issues without being heavy-handed or preachy, including I Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo, a powerfully sung and written tale about escaping domestic violence, with tasty guitar commentary from Buddy Guy, the country rockin’ Somebody Else’s Jesus about shady mega-churches and Lemon Pie about our tough economic times.

During the Chicago Blues Fest in 2011, Copeland was given the crown of “Queen of the Blues” by Cookie Taylor, daughter of the late Koko Taylor, longtime reigning blues queen. Sure it was all ceremony, but if there’s another blues mama out there with the pedigree, talent and dedication to the music that Copeland has exhibited since her debut album, Turn the Heat Up, recorded when she was just 19, she’s got a lot of work to do to catch up to the newly crowned queen.

Poppin’ vocal mollies

Next Thursday at the Waejten Auditorium at Cleveland State University, European vocal group Perpetuum Jazzile will perform. This should be an interesting show for fans of complex vocal harmony or as they call it “vocal ecstasy.”

The large group of 35 singers based in Slovenia and led by a Swede call themselves a “vocal orchestra” and their set list contains a lot of unique vocal arrangements of popular songs of the past and present including tunes by artists as different as Cyndi Lauper, Earth, Wind & Fire, Van Halen and ABBA all the way to an impressive, detailed arrangement of Beyonce and Lady Gaga’s Telephone.

The YouTube videos sure make the group’s shows look fun and the videos have received millions of YouTube hits for Perpetuum Jazzile’s onstage energy and talent and the group has turned that into sell-out tours around Europe and South America.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or by email at He’s also on Facebook as Malcolm X Abram. … Go figure.

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