“You’re not going to want dessert after this,” remarked blues empress Shemekia Copeland last night at Natasha’s as she launched into a tune called Lemon Pie. Needless to say, it wasn’t an ode to culinary devotion. But the song also wasn’t some innuendo-filled grinder that has become stereotypical of many blues and soul stylists. No, Copeland’s Lemon Pie was a tartly topical rocker that explored the kinds of class struggles where real life blues dwell.
A similar plain speaking spirit dominated Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo and its sobering portrayal of domestic violence or Somebody Else’s Jesus with its references to less-than-loving religious diatribes. All of these songs derived their blues power not from standard tales of self-pity set to tired 12 bar soundscapes. These were sagas that balanced themes of contemporary urgency with a celebratory musical foundation that allowed Copeland to roar like blues royalty.
In many ways, the latter attribute won out last night. The range, detail and assurance of Copeland’s singing have matured remarkably over the years. Always a vocalist of great guttural power, Copeland displayed a heightened sense of phrasing during the 95 minute set that dispensed bravado more gradually. A fine example was Married to the Blues, which began as an Otis Rush-style slow blues burner that unleashed Copeland’s vocal potency in waves until it towered with wailing ferocity.
Similarly, an extended version of father Johnny Copeland’s Ghetto Child allowed the singer to leave the microphone and perform the song’s chorus repeatedly like a mantra as she strolled, unamplified, through the audience.
The rest of the program mixed a trio of holiday tunes (including the show-opening Merry Christmas Baby), a blast of tambourine-shaking gospel (Big Brand New Religion, a sort of Pentecostal Beatles rave-up) and a tune of obsessive love penned from a predominantly non-blues standpoint (a groove-centric cover of Lucinda Williams Can’t Let Go).
The variety and depth of the material certainly placed the concert in the upper echelon of blue performances. But it was Copeland’s singing, which peeled away youthful edge and huskiness to reveal a more learned and versatile vocal clarity, that gave this expert program such an honest and absorbing voice.