Copeland keeps spirit of the blues alive
at fest

June 3, 2002


Is the blues still a vital, growing culture and a living, breathing music? That
debate has long been the subtext of Chicago's annual BluesFest, and it
continued as tens of thousands of people filled Grant Parkon a summery

"The blues is static, a museum piece," independent label exec Chris Strachwitz
said during a panel discussion on reissuing the classics held at the Route 66
Road House stage on Saturday afternoon. "It's like Dixieland."

Through many of the day's performances, he seemed to be correct. But the lie
was put to that notion by the night's 23-year-old headliner, Shemekia Copeland,
as well as by other imaginative bookings such as Vernon Reid on Sunday and
the young trio the North Mississippi All Stars on Thursday.

One of the best-selling blues artists today, Copeland delivered a barn-burning
90-minute set that positioned her as a new generation's Koko Taylor. (The grand
old lady of Chicago blues introduced the young progeny in typically spirited
form, calling her "a firecracker" not once, but twice.)

"Wicked," Copeland's second album for Chicago's Alligator Records, suffers
from an overly fussy production and too much mediocre, unimaginative material.
But onstage, the Harlem native (daughter of the late Texas guitar legend Johnny
"Clyde" Copeland) brought fire and passion to every tune she performed,
transforming the sometimes impersonal Petrillo Bandshell into the tiny stage at
an intimate juke joint.

Copeland benefitted from the rollicking backing of a small, tight band with guitar,
bass, drums and Hammond organ. This relatively stripped-down setting put the
focus on her powerful voice, an impressive instrument that's as big as her
expansive personality.

"I'm a wild, wild woman, baby, and you're a lucky man," she roared on the
opening tune, and she continued to play the part of an African-American Mae
West through other songs such as the stompers "Has Anybody Seen My Man"
and "It's 2 A.M."; the romantic ballad "Love Scene," and the raunchy anthem
"The Other Woman."

After tearing through the latter, Copeland joked about its adulterous theme.

"I'm only 23 but I've been in that particular situation 13 times--and that's only
this week!" she said. "That's why I sing the blues."

As she warmed up, she dropped in a few well-chosen cuss words and shook
her groove thang with wild abandon, evoking all the vitality of the angst-ridden
gangsta rapper or the raging punk-rocker.

If the blues is dead, nobody has bothered to inform this young firebrand.

For that matter, no one has told the aged legend Honeyboy Edwards, who was
joined earlier in the day on the Front Porch stage by Steve Arvey and Jon
McDonald. Sitting John Lee Hooker-style and playing an amplified acoustic
guitar, Edwards evoked the steamy Delta of his long-ago youth for a smaller but
hugely enthusiastic crowd.

Two more outstanding sets were delivered by Darling, Miss., native James
"Super Chikan" Johnson, who took his bouncy brand of jump blues to both the
Juke Joint and Front Porch platforms.

Both of these performers would have been more welcome presences at Petrillo
than the two acts who preceded Copeland. Her openers epitomized the kind of
bland, uninspired bookings that start skeptics talking about this music being six
feet under.

Local club mainstay Johnny B. Moore delivered the sort of shucking and jiving
tourist set that one could catch at any of the city's lesser blues clubs on a
Tuesday night.

The reunited Jelly Roll Kings started strong, with a sound driven by their
high-octane, barrelhouse piano. But they soon devolved into the same old tired
Blues Brothers crowd-pandering once Sam Carr and special guest John Weston
came to the forefront.

Both of these acts ended their sets with rote renditions of (you guessed it)
"Sweet Home Chicago."

If music lovers want to once and for all end this silly talk of the blues being
dead, we need to do two things: First, we must prompt the Blues Fest to
commit fully to more bookings like Copeland and the North Mississippi All

As has often been said, this may require charging concertgoers a nominal fee,
or seeking more corporate sponsorship. But such a commitment by the city
could finally turn the festival into a world-class event to rival New Orleans' Jazz
and Heritage Festival or Austin's South By Southwest Music & Media

The other thing we must do is to prompt the City Council to enact a new law:
Playing "Sweet Home Chicago" within 100 miles of the city limits needs to be
as illegal as urinating in public anywhere around Wrigley Field.

Call your alderman now!