Music News & Reviews

Walter Tunis: Blues' new queen, Shemekia Copeland, is in town

Shemekia Copeland inherited her blues crown from Koko Taylor.
Shemekia Copeland inherited her blues crown from Koko Taylor.

Shemekia Copeland

7 p.m. March 4 at Natasha's Bistro and Bar, 112 Esplanade. $25 in advance, $30 day of show. (859) 259-2754.

Shemekia Copeland is right at home sharing the bill with high-profile company.

At age 8, the Harlem, N.Y.-born blues belter was urged by her celebrated guitarist/father, Johnny Copeland, to sing at the Cotton Club. That was before she recognized her own potent vocal and stage presence.

Now let's fast forward to the 1990s. After releasing her debut album, Turn the Heat Up!, while in her teens, Copeland, 32, began sharing the stage with the "Queen of the Blues," Koko Taylor. Perhaps Taylor recognized an heir apparent to her own gutsy blues drive in Copeland. Maybe she just viewed her as a kindred spirit. But after Taylor's death in 2009, there was little doubt that a new queen had arrived. A ceremony at last year's Chicago Blues Festival made it official, with Copeland being bestowed the title by Taylor's daughter.

Go back to 2004 and a concert at Ashland's Paramount Theatre. Copeland could be found sharing the stage with Dr. John, who produced her fine 2002 album, Talking to Strangers. Augmented by harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite, the concert remains one of the region's finest contemporary blues summits.

Then there was the date last fall at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, when Copeland co-headlined a bill with guitar great Robert Cray. And as recently as last weekend, she took part in a star-packed tribute concert for the late guitarist Hubert Sumlin at the Apollo Theatre. Among the show's other luminaries: Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Elvis Costello, ZZ Top's Billy F. Gibbons, Keb' Mo', Jimmie Vaughan and Kim Wilson.

Now that's what you call esteemed company. On Sunday, however, things will be different. Her performance at Natasha's will feature no special guests (at least, none have been announced). Likewise, no blues celebrities will share the bill with her. Instead, the evening will be devoted to Copeland and her swampy, soulful variation of the blues.

"Variation" is the key to Copeland's most recent album, 2009's Never Going Back. It was produced by Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers) who emphasized grooves both rootsy and progressive.

Some tunes, such as the original Sounds Like the Devil and a fearsome cover of Percy Mayfield's River's Invitation, fit right in with Copeland's Harlem-bred, Southern-infused blues heritage. But a more stoic and textured reading of Joni Mitchell's Black Crow nicely stretches the stylistic reach of Copeland's singing. The bulk of Never Going Back does that as well. Among the decidedly non-blues pals recruited for the project were keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Chris Wood (two thirds of Medeski Martin & Wood), and New York guitar stylist Marc Ribot.

So, yes, even Never Going Back places Copeland alongside some impressive pals. But as she probably will prove once she plays Natasha's, when it comes to pure blues and soul ferocity, the Queen stands alone.

Brown out

He's back at Buster's, 899 Manchester Street, on Saturday: the "guit-steel" maverick known as Junior Brown.

Schooled in vintage country music, Brown favors a guitar sound so varied (it runs from blues to country to surf to psychedelia to Hawaiian music and more) that he pioneered his own instrument to present it. Dubbed the guit-steel, it combines, on two necks, electric guitar and lap steel guitar.

Over the past 15 years, there hasn't been much change to such guit-steel-driven classics as My Wife Thinks You're Dead and I Hung it Up. But for sheer guitar-charged fun, nothing beats a Brown party. The self-described "greasy rockabilly" band Death by Rodeo will open. (9 p.m. $20 in advance, $23 day of show. (859) 368-8871.

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