Shemekia Copeland’s New Album Features Powerful Blues and Hard-Hitting Lyrics

This album review has an intro, so bear with me. Last Saturday evening, I spontaneously decided to go to Asbury Park, a great town for live music on the Jersey shore not far from my house. My destination was The Stone Pony where during the warmer months of the year they have a Summer Stage series of outdoor concerts. I had seen Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit were scheduled to perform there. I’ve listened to some of Isbell’s music and generally dig what I’ve heard thus far.

Since I didn’t have a ticket and didn’t want to spend money, I joined many other folks just outside the venue where you can perfectly hear the music though only partially see the performing artists. While approaching The Stone Pony, I heard an incredible vocalist who obviously wasn’t Isbell. It turned out to be Shemekia Copeland, who was opening up for him – and, holy cow, this woman was killing it on stage! The next thing I did was to check her music catalog on my phone and, voila, that’s how I learned about Done Come Too Far, her latest album that was released on August 19. To say it right upfront, it’s a real beauty!

I believe the first time I may have heard of Shemekia Copeland was when fellow blogger Music Enthusiast wrote about her. I also previously included her in this blues feature. While I had known Copeland is a compelling artist, until my above live encounter, I had not fully appreciated what a powerhouse vocalist she is! You can certainly realize her vocal capabilities when listening to the new album, but, frankly, she sounds even better live!

I guess you could say Copeland was destined to become a blues artist. She’s the daughter of Texas blues guitarist Johnny Copeland who made his recording debut in 1956. Over a 40-plus year career, he recorded with the likes of Albert Collins and Robert Cray and became a popular touring act. He also helped establish Shemekia’s name in blues circles by taking her on the road to open his shows. She had started to sing as a child and by the time she was 16 began pursuing a professional career.

LOS ANGELES, CA— MARCH 18, 2022 RECORDING ARTIST, BLUES SINGER, SHEMEKIA COPELAND FOR ALLIGATOR RECORDS. Photos by Victoria Smith Make Up by KATE KATS

After high school graduation in 1997, Copeland signed with Chicago-based independent blues label Alligator Records and recorded her debut album. Turn the Heat Up! appeared in April 1998 and put her on the map as a  blues and R&B force. From her website: From her debut through 2005’s The Soul Truth, Shemekia earned eight Blues Music Awards and a host of Living Blues Awards. 2000’s Wicked received the first of her four Grammy nominations. After two successful releases on Telarc (including 2012’s Grammy-nominated 33 1/3), Copeland returned to Alligator Records in 2015 with the Grammy-nominated, Blues Music Award-winning Outskirts Of Love, melding blues with more rootsy, Americana sounds.

I think it’s time for some music from Done Come Too Far, Copeland’s 11th studio album. Let’s kick it off with the great opener Too Far To Be Gone. Like all other tracks featured in this post, it was co-written by John Hahn and producer Will Kimbrough. Featuring slide guitar wizard Sonny Landreth, you kind of know this has to be good! “This album was made by all sides of me — happy, sad, silly, irate — they’re all a part who I am and who we all are,” Copeland explained in a statement that announced the album, as well as Too Far To Be Gone as the lead single. “I’m not political. I’m just talking about what’s happening in this country.” And that she does, and she’s not holding back!

Pink Turns To Red, a powerful song about the madness of school shootings in this country, is perhaps the tune that lyrically stands out to me the most:…When pink turns to red, nowhere to run/Pink turns to red, life’s over and done/Tears will flow, prayers will be said/But it’s too late, pink turns to red…Nothing much to add here!

The Talk, a haunting slow blues, is another powerful tune about a worried black mom’s conversation with her son to be careful or risk being killed. I held my breath, as you took the first steps/I was proud as a mama can get/Now it’s been years, you’ve grown tall/But I’m still worried you’re gonna fall/Got to have the talk/Got to have the talk/You might do nothing wrong, the next moment you’ll be gone/Got to have the talk…”I tell him all the time, ‘Discipline is going to save your life one day,” Copeland told the Houston Press, referring to her 5-year-old son. “He doesn’t know what I’m talking about now, but I want him to remember it and think about it every day of his life. I tell the same thing to my nephews who are 16 and 19.”

On the title track, Copeland teams up with Mississippi Hill country blues icon Cedric Burnside who provides guest vocals. Lyrically, the song presents more candid words on the state of Blacks in present-day America with a defiant stance:…Done come too far to be gone, come too far to be gone/If you think we’re stopping, you got it wrong/We’re done come too far to be gone…If I could end things in this world, racism would be one of the first things. I will never understand or accept it!

The last track I’d like to call out is Fell In Love With a Honky. The country rock-oriented tune shows Copeland’s light-hearted side, setting a welcome contrast on an otherwise lyrically pretty grim album. Saw his long legs walking into Tussie’s/Next thing I knew, we was playing footsies/He wasn’t really handsome, just not my type/Standing by himself, in a jukebox light/But there was something about him that was kind of cute/Made me love him down to his cowboy boots…

Done Come Too Far was recorded in Nashville. Producer Will Kimbrough also served in that capacity on Copeland’s previous two albums. Apart from Sonny Landreth and Cedric Burnside, guests included country blues artist Kenny Brown; prominent Memphis soul keyboarder Charles Hodges; Oliver Wood, guitarist of American roots band The Wood Brothers; Americana singer-songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan; and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, a member of alternative rock band Wilco.

Here’s a Spotify link to the album:

After having witnessed part of Copeland’s live set and listened to this album, I can understand some of the enthusiastic reactions she has received, which are noted on her website. For example: “Shemekia Copeland has established herself as one of the leading blues artists of our time.” –NPR Music. “Shemekia Copeland is an antidote to artifice. She is a commanding presence, a powerhouse vocalist delivering the truth.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer. And, perhaps most impressively: “I am so happy Shemekia is delivering these songs that the world needs to hear. Her voice is strong and soulful, and her message comes from her heart.” – Mavis Staples.

Reflecting on her musical evolution over her previous two albums and Done Come Too Far, Copeland said, “Once my son was born, I became even more committed to making the world a better place. On America’s Child [Aug 2018 – CMM], Uncivil War [Oct 2020 – CMM] and now Done Come Too Far, I’ve been trying to put the ‘United’ back into United States. Friends, family and home, these things we all value.” In case you’d like to see Copeland, her current tour schedule is here.

To those of you celebrating, happy Labor Day. To everybody else, I hope you have a great Monday as well!

Sources: Wikipedia; Shemekia Copeland website; Aligator Records press release; Houston Press; YouTube; Spotify

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The Blues Comes Alive…Live – Part I

For people who have frequently visited this blog or know me otherwise, this won’t come as a big surprise: I love the blues and blues rock. I also feel it’s a type of music that’s perfect to be experienced live. I was reminded of this on Saturday when thanks to fellow blogger Mike from Ticket 2 Ride I listened to Layla Revisited (Live at LOCKN’).

This cool live album by Tedeschi Trucks Band, released back in July, celebrates Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the sole 1970 studio album by Derek and the Dominos. And just like blues musicians often feed off one another, I let this inspire me and decided to come up with a post of great live blues and blues rock performances. I’m going to do this in two parts. Hope you dig this as much as I do!

B.B. King/The Thrill Is Gone

Let’s kick off part I with the king of electric guitar blues, the amazing B.B. King. He demonstrated that it’s not about speed and how many notes you play, it’s what you play. And when it comes to this man, he made every note count he played on his beloved “Lucille”. Check out this cool rendition of The Thrill Is Gone, captured in Chicago at the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival. Written by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell and first recorded by Hawkins in 1951, The Thrill Is Gone became a major hit for King in 1969 and I would argue his signature song. King is joined by many of the musicians he influenced, including Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan, among others. Check it out, this is just amazing!

John Lee Hooker/Boogie Chillen’

Recently, I watched the great documentary Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away, in which Guy identified John Lee Hooker’s Boogie Chillen’ as the first single he bought, and the song that got him hooked to the guitar and the blues! I’m thrilled I found this clip of Hooker performing the tune with Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones in 1989 in Atlantic City, N.J. That’s what I call a cool backing band! Hooker wrote and first recorded the song in 1948. Clapton and the Stones, who are huge fans of American blues artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker and have done a lot to promote their music, especially in the U.S., clearly cherished the moment.

Muddy Waters/Rollin’ Stone

Speaking of Muddy Waters, here’s a great live performance of Rollin’ Stone, the very song that inspired the name of the “world’s greatest rock & roll band.” An interpretation of delta blues tune Catfish Blues, Waters recorded Rollin’ Stone in 1950. The clip shows his performance of the song at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960. It’s the oldest footage features in this two-part post.

Cream/Crossroads

Cream possibly are my all-time favorite blues rock band. Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker perfectionated the art of the power trio. Here’s a great clip of Crossroads performed by the band in March 1968 at the Fillmore Auditorium & Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Written by Robert Johnson who originally recorded it as Cross Road Blues in 1936, Crossroads (arranged by Clapton) appeared on Cream’s 1968 album Wheels of Fire. The live version on the record seems to be the same than the one that is captured in this clip.

Dani Wilde/Mississippi Kisses

Buddy Guy, who together with Taj Mahal is one of the last men standing of what I would call the old blues guard, often speaks about the need for young artists to come along to keep the blues alive when he will be gone. I’m actually pretty optimistic about this. Some great examples coming to mind include 22-year-old Christone “Kingfish” Ingram; 24-year-old Jontavious Willis who has been called “wunderkind” by none other than Mahal; or 44-year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd. But guess what? There are also some dynamite female blues and blues rock artists out there like 36-year-old British singer-songwriter Dani Wilde. Ana Popović, Shemekia Copeland and Eliana Cargnelutti are among some of the others who come to mind. Here’s a 2015 performance by Wilde of Mississippi Kisses, a tune she wrote for her 2012 album Juice Me Up.

J. Geils Band/First I Look at the Purse

A post about great live renditions of blues rock tunes would be amiss without the ultimate party group, the J. Geils Band, don’t you agree? I think it’s also a perfect way to wrap up part I. Here’s a cool clip taken from what looks like a 1979 appearance of the band on the German music TV program Rockpalast. One of my all-time favorites by the J. Geils Band is their high energy rendition of First I Look at the Purse. It’s the main part of this encore medley, which starts at around 4 minutes into the clip. Co-written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers, the song was first released by Motown R&B group The Contours in 1965. J Geils Band recorded their cover of the tune for their eponymous debut album from November 1970, but it’s really their live rendition that brings out the song’s true magic. When watching this, don’t you feel like dropping anything you’re doing right now and going to a fuckin’ rock & roll show? What a killer performance by a killer live band!

Sources: Wikipedia; Discogs; YouTube

Hey, Hey, The Blues is Alright

I got this song/I’m gonna sing/I’m gonna sing it just for you/If you dig the blues/I want you to help me sing it, too/I want everybody to hear me when I say/The blues is back, and it’s here to stay.

The above intro from The Blues is Alright, a tune by Little Milton, nicely captures how I’m feeling as I’m writing this post. Of course, the blues has always never really left, though I guess it’s fair to say it had greater visibility when Milton released that song back in 1984 and Stevie Ray Vaughan was all the rage.

Sadly, Vaughan and Milton are no longer with us, not to mention the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, to name a few artists of the “old guard.” But over the past few months, exciting new blues music has been released. And as somebody who digs the blues, that truly makes me happy. Are you ready for some? Ready or not, here we go!

Robert Cray first appeared on my radar screen in 1988 with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the title track to his sixth studio album, a tune that grabbed me immediately. Fast-forward some 32 years and 18 records later to February 28 this year when Cray released That’s What I Heard. Produced by longtime collaborator Steve Jordan, who also plays drums and percussion, the great collection includes four original tracks and eight covers. The Robert Cray Band also features Richard Cousins (bass), Dover Weinberg (keyboards) and Terence F. Clark (drums). Here’s the opener Anything You Want, an original. Apart from being a decent guitarist, I think Cray also has a great soulful voice.

Ever heard of British blues-rock guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor? Damn, that lady sounds smoking hot to me! Even though Taylor is only in her mid-30s, she has an impressive record. She was discovered at the age of 16 by Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics), who in 2002 invited her to tour in Europe with his band D.U.P. In 2009, Taylor’s debut album White Sugar appeared. Her latest release is Reckless Blues, an EP that came out two weeks ago on March 6. Here’s a great cover of Slow Dancing in a Burning Room, a tune John Mayer wrote and first recorded for his third studio album Continuum from September 2006.

Let’s move on to Frank Bey. Admittedly, I had never heard of him until earlier today, even though the man is 74 years old and, well, has been around for some time. According to his website, he began his singing career 70 years ago as a gospel singer – yep, we’re talking as a 4-year-old. At age 17, he joined the Otis Redding Revue. In the mid-70s, Bey became entangled in a legal battle with James Brown over one of his songs Brown had recorded without his permission. While the matter was settled out of court, it left Bey embittered, and he got out of the music business for 17 years. Then he returned and since 1998 has released six albums, the most recent of which is All My Dues Are Paid that appeared on January 17 this year. It’s warm and soulful. Here’s the tasty opener Idle Hands, featuring some cool wah-wah guitar and nice horn work, along with Bey’s great vocals and some hot gospel backing vocals. Check it out!

Ready for two more? Here’s Christone “Kingfish” Ingram with his new single Empty Promises, a live recording that came out on February 14. The 21-year-old from Clarksdale, Miss. released his debut album Kingfish last May and got rave reviews. It’s certainly no coincidence he has played with the likes of Buddy Guy, Keb’ Mo’, Eric Gales and Rick Derringer. I think we will hear many more great things from this super talented young artist. Empty Promises was written by blues and soul singer and guitarist  Michael Burks who passed away in May 2012 from a heart attack. He was only 54 years old.

The final tune I’d like to call out is by Tas Cru, another blues artist I had not heard of before either. While he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, luckily, there’s a website. According to his bio, Cru is truly a blues eclectic who refuses to let his music be bound to just one blues style…with a repertoire of over 60 original songs from multiple albums and dozens of crowd-pleasing classics…Tas Cru is currently is based out of upstate New York and performs in multiple formats ranging from solo acoustic to a 7 piece-backing band. Cru’s most recent album, which was released on February 1, is titled Drive On. According to a review in Elmore Magazine, it’s his ninth and 11th overall, when including two blues-for-kids records he made. Here’s the funky title song featuring great horn and organ work. Don’t get fooled by the tune’s slow start. Keep listening!

Sources: Wikipedia; Robert Cray website; Joanne Shaw Taylor website; Frank Bey website; Tas Cru website; Elmore Magazine; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Albert King, B.B. King, Robert Cray et al/Blues Medley

Inspired by this recent post from Music Enthusiast, I’ve been listening to Koko Taylor and originally intended to post a clip of this amazing artist who was also known as The Queen of the Blues. Then I came across the amazing clip above, which apparently was captured at the Grammy Awards in 1987 and shows two back-to-back performances by some of the greatest blues artists on one stage.

Things kick off with Willie Dixon and Taylor singing the Dixon tune When I Make Love. The backing band includes Dr. John, Junior Wells and Ry Cooder, among others. Next up is the Louis Jordan song Let The Good Times Roll, performed by Albert King and B.B. King, together with Big Jay McNeely, Robert Cray and Etta James. The audience is on their feet and McNeely on his back by the end of the track – any doubts you may have had whether the blues is here to stay will be gone after you’ve watched this!

I’ll definitely do something on Taylor soon and also post on some of the other blues pioneers who wrote music that was made popular by others, often white artists.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

In Memoriam of Chuck Berry

When I listened to Johnny B. Goode for the first time, I instantly realized Chuck Berry sounded differently than any other guitarist I had ever heard.

When I saw a push message in my smartphone yesterday about the death of Chuck Berry, I was in disbelief at first. Sure, I knew the man had turned 90 last October, so he wasn’t exactly a teenager any longer. But I also recalled Berry had used that happy occasion to announce his first new record in 38 years slated for release sometime this year. I suspect it will become a big seller, which would be a cruel irony that happened to many other music artists after they passed away.

Chuck Berry’s influence on rock & roll music cannot be overstated. To begin with, there was simply no guitarist at the time who could play the electric guitar “like a ringing bell.” Berry’s style may sound crude at times, but try playing his licks, and you quickly realize it’s much more sophisticated than you might think – I found out myself! Admittedly, I was always much more an acoustic guy, and the electric guitar certainly did not come naturally to me.

In addition to being an innovative guitarist who created his own signature sound, Berry was an incredible showman. Perhaps the move for which he is best remembered is the “duckwalk” he popularized in the 1950’s – a whooping 30 years before another walk made music history: Michael Jackson’s moonwalk in 1983. While the origins of the duckwalk reportedly go back to 1930’s performance by T-Bone Walker, one of Berry’s influences, it was Berry who put the move on the map and who is typically credited as its inventor.

And then there are of course all the iconic classic rock & roll tunes Berry wrote: Maybellene, Roll Over Beethoven, Too Much Monkey Business, School Day, Rock and Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B. Goode, Carol, Little Queenie – and the list goes on! Remarkably, none of these amazing songs topped the mainstream U.S. charts. Sweet Little Sixteen came closest, reaching no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958; it did hit no. 1 on the R&B Best Sellers chart the same year. Berry’s only no. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 was My Ding-a-Ling in 1972. While I read he always stood by the tune, I think it’s fair to say an important reason why the song became so successful was the ill-fated refusal from many radio stations to play it because of its lyrics.

Many of Berry’s tunes were covered by other artists. In fact, the very first single from The Rolling Stones in 1963, Come On, is a Berry tune he had first released in 1961. The Beatles were also big fans of Berry and did excellent covers of Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music – in fact, I have to say I prefer the latter to the original version! Yet another great example of a Berry cover is the Yardbirds’ Too Much Monkey Business on their 1964 debut live album Five Live Yardbirds with Eric Clapton on lead guitar – nothing “slowhand” about this absolute killer version!

Reportedly, Berry was not an easy person to deal with offstage. He had certain rules that could not be broken. He always demanded payment in advance of any performance and a specific guitar amplifier. He also insisted on a limousine for his shows, which he would drive himself. Instead of relying on a standing set of touring musicians, he asked concert promoters to hire local backup bands for him. Together with not providing set lists in advance of gigs, it’s not surprising this sometimes impacted the quality of his live shows. But I also read other accounts suggesting Berry was a very kind-hearted man who was simply reluctant to trust people he didn’t know well, since he felt life had betrayed him in the past.

Not surprisingly, when an influential artist like Chuck Berry passes away, social media lights up with present or past sentiments expressed by other great rock guitarists. I’d like to share some of them. For Rolling Stone’s December 2010 feature 100 Greatest Artists, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry wrote, “I heard Chuck Berry Is On Top – and I really freaked out! That feeling of excitement in the pit of my stomach, in the hair in the back of my neck: I got more of it from Chuck Berry than from anybody else.”

For a rock music fan, it’s easy to understand Perry’s reaction. Released in July 1959, Berry’s third studio album included some of his greatest gems, such as Carol, Maybellene, Johnny B. Goode, Little Queenie and Roll Over Beethoven – all on one album and all written by him!

Bruce Springsteen, who set the stage on fire playing Johnny B. Goode with Berry and the E Street Band during a 1995 concert for the opening of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s museum, tweeted, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”

Keith Richards wrote on Facebook, “One of my big lights has gone out.” The post was accompanied by a photo showing Richards standing on stage next to Berry with the following caption: “I don’t even know if Chuck realizes what he did. I don’t think he does…It was just such a total thing, a great sound, a great rhythm coming off the needle of all of Chuck’s records. It’s when I knew what I wanted to do.” More specifically, that moment came for Richards when as a teenager he saw Berry perform Sweet Little Sixteen at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which was captured in the film documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, as he told Rolling Stone.

Perhaps the most beautiful take came from the E Street Band’s Little Steven on the Facebook page of his excellent radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage: 

“Chuck Berry.

Chuck Berry was the King of Rock and Roll. Period. Richard brought the Passion, Elvis the Heartbreak, Bo the Beat, Jerry Lee the Abandon, Buddy let the Everyman in, Chuck brought the Storytelling. The words that Bob Dylan would evolve into an Artform. He led the teenage takeover of Pop Music that the Beatles and Stones would complete. He invented Rock guitar and made it look like fun. He gave the previously ignored age group between adolescence and adulthood an identity, a mythology, a chance to see themselves. He gave them Respect. And those teenagers would return that respect to Rock and Roll for the next 60 years and counting.

– Little Steven, March 18 2017”

I have nothing to add, except offering a clip of Berry’s amazing performance of Too Much Monkey Business, which features a very cool solo by Keith Richards, of course played Chuck Berry style! It’s taken from Taylor Hackford’s 1987 music documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, shot to celebrate Berry’s 60’s birthday. In addition to Richards, other artists performing with Berry included Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Etta James, Johnnie Johnson, Steve Jordan, Bobby Keys, Julian Lennon and Joey Spampinato.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube