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Music Review: Shemekia Copeland – Never Going Back

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Shemekia Copeland, daughter of the late Johnny ‘Clyde’ Copeland, has always refused to be confined by twelve-bar convention, incorporating equal parts funk, soul, and R&B into the mix through four fine outings on Alligator Records.

Never Going Back, though, her debut on the Telarc Blues imprint, represents a significant step forward. This is a cohesive and carefully considered collection representing a significant artistic statement. As such, it’s a bit more than just another blues recording.

Copeland’s working here with a crack studio band led by guitarist/producer Oliver Wood. Also on hand are guitarist Marc Ribot, with bassist Ted Pecchio and drummer Tyler Greenwell providing a solid but supple rhythm section. Wood also had a hand in much of the material here, with co-writing credits on fully half the tunes. His production plays a significant role in the disc’s success – arrangements are generally more complex than typical twelve-bar fare, densely layered and moodily evocative. But it’s Copeland that’s front and center, her magnificent voice quite rightly the focal point throughout.

Copeland’s been singing all her life, and it’s obviously as natural as breathing for her. She wields a commanding authority – there’s a quiet confidence in her delivery, and here she’s addressing topics that are clearly close to her heart with compelling assurance. Environmental concerns and social injustice top the list; “Sounds Like The Devil” is an angry indictment of organizational hypocrisy, while “Dirty Water” bristles with defiance over the corporate greed polluting the world. “Broken World” is a gently burbling but clear-eyed ode to good intentions, and “Big Brand New Religion” skewers misplaced faith with gospel fervor.

Other fare ranges from a thoroughly spooky “Never Going Back To Memphis” and a stripped down yet eerily atmospheric cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow,” to the proudly funky “Born A Penny” and “Limousine.” Both “The Truth Is The Light” and “Rise Up” combine crunching guitars with scathing commentary, while Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation” gets a funky treatment to excellent effect. The disc ends with a perfect touch – a cover of her father’s “Circumstances.” Accompanied only by acoustic and slide guitars, Shemekia delivers a stunning performance of subdued but powerful intensity.

Fortunately polemics never take precedence over the music, though, and there’s a pervading, bluesy Memphis groove to proceedings that ensures Copeland’s messages are felt in the feet. The balance between conscience and righteous abandon is just right, with the results both musically and intellectually satisfying.

Never Going Back may well serve as Copeland’s declaration of musical intent, a conscious decision not to dwell on the tried and true. Copeland’s more adventurous than that, and with this offering she shows herself a strong, confident artist with the determination and drive to explore not just what the blues are but what they can be.

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