Shemekia Copeland: The Queen Holds Court at Infinity Hall
by Holley Dey
When Shemekia Copeland opened her mouth to sing, her lips spread circle wide. I expected her to draw from the depths of her lungs, for the music to wail full volume, but no. What emerged was a smooth, tempered vocal delivered with a relaxed confidence and a genuine smile.
She opened with a cover of Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Dirty Water”, the story of a failed relationship. Shemekia claims expert knowledge of the subject; she’s had “about 872” go sour. “We’re gonna be here awhile,” she winked. It was the right start to the night, a sultry number that highlighted her comfortable, bluesy tone, her simple yet expressive phrasing.
She followed with “Lemon Pie” from new album 33 1/3, the 2012 release that earned a Grammy nomination and sent Shemekia scrambling for a dress. She found one, a snappy blue satin number from David’s Bridals that fit like a glove and set its owner back a mere $99. A stunner, the dress and Shemekia’s curves were featured in Italian Vogue magazine. Deadpanned the singer, “This cheap ass dress got into Vogue!”
Her personality seemed almost as big as her voice. She laughed, joked with a receptive Infinity Hall crowd. She claimed to be the only member of her family who cannot dance, but then moved her hips in a rhythm that suggested otherwise. She chatted with the audience, encouraged a call and response, then strode into the midst, liberally dispensing hugs along the way, leaving smiles in her wake. Her touch on my shoulder was gentle and certain. I believe I have been knighted by the Queen.
These are remarkable times for Shemekia Copeland. She received her tiara at the 2011 Chicago Blues Festival where 10,000 applauded the new Queen of the Blues. She is featured on the new Slide Brothers album, co-produced by Robert Randolph. She performed with Gary Clark, Jr. for the President and First Lady at the White House. The critically acclaimed, Grammy nominated 33 1/3 spent more than four months atop the Roots music chart.
Co-written by manager John Hahn and guitarist/producer Oliver Wood, “Lemon Pie” is the opening track of the new album. (listen below) The song offers social commentary with a steady beat, pleasant melody and generic lyrics that set heads nodding and toes tapping. It’s a reflection of our economic times. The poor can’t afford a ticket to ride, yet they watch the politician wave from the “gravy train”. Despite the catchy tune and straightforward delivery, the song left little room for Shemekia to stretch her vocals. Her talent and dynamic range were better showcased in several tunes that followed, including the dark and dirty “Never Going Back to Memphis” where her voice was allowed to rise and fall with the emotion of the verse, and where brief vocal runs were both subtle and supple.
The set drew from her recent work, including “Mississippi Mud”, “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo”, and “Somebody Else’s Jesus” from 33 1/3, but also paid tribute to her gospel roots and musical heritage. The daughter of blues guitarist Johnny Copeland grew up in Harlem when all the music was either “rap or Whitney Houston”, she says. She drew a line early, declaring her allegiance to Koko Taylor styled blues in only the second grade, insisting “I’m a woman. I can make love to a crocodile.”
I don’t doubt it. At a little more than 33 1/3 years of age, Shemekia Copeland has already stamped her name and evolving style on American blues, and on a Sunday night in Norfolk she proved the blues make people happy, often hundreds at a time.
Shemekia Copeland with bass player Kevin Jenkins
Guitarist Arthur Neilson (left) with rhythm guitarist Willie Scandlyn
Listen to “Lemon Pie” from Grammy nominated album 33 1/3: