Blues diva Shemekia Copeland shows how it's done

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Shemekia Copeland

Chicago blues singer Shemekia Copeland. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune / May 24, 2011)

The defining moment of Shemekia Copeland's illuminating show Friday night at SPACE came toward the end, when she put down the microphone and left the stage.

Singing practically a cappella, with only a whisper of accompaniment from the band, Copeland slowly strolled through the standing-room-only crowd, delivering "Ghetto Child," a song made famous by her father, blues guitarist Johnny "Clyde" Copeland.

Here was Shemekia Copeland's voice revealed for its full beauty, minus amplification, distortion or distraction. The Chicago vocalist might as well have been singing in her living room or in church, the glow of her tone plain for all to hear. If anyone doubted that she owns one of the most compelling instruments in 21st century blues, here were the vocal exhortations to prove it.

Yet it wasn't just the nature of her sound that made this performance so gripping. Alternating between sung phrases and spoken patter, Copeland improvised lines of considerable complexity, bending notes, embellishing melodies, pausing, starting, stopping and otherwise subverting audience expectations. In essence, Copeland made a blues aria of "Ghetto Child," reshaping and personalizing it with considerable imagination and ample technical resources.

By the time she returned to the stage and brought the microphone back to her lips for the tune's final moments, the audience roared its approval, having heard and seen the core elements of her art at close range. A tour de force.

Copeland delivered the lion's share of the show stage center, of course, and at full throttle. If her top-notch but sometimes over-enthusiastic band often competed with her decibel levels, obscuring the tonal beauty of her work, there was no doubting the drive and conviction of this performance.

She opened in full cry and fine voice in "Can't Let Go," from her most recent album, "33 1/3," proving that it's possible for a blues singer to push a fortissimo without screaming. It's a lesson that lesser vocalists would do well to observe. For even when Copeland sent forth great waves of sound, she managed to preserve the essential sweetness of her tone, no small feat.

In "Lemon Pie" – a withering account of socioeconomic injustice – Copeland conveyed a dramatic urgency and rhythmic drive that superseded her version on "33 1/3." The clenched-fist defiance of her delivery in concert presented the piece more as political anthem than blues lament, and there was no ducking the pungency of the message.

Yet through it all – and even in sharp-edged songs such as "Circumstances" and "Never Going Back to Memphis" (both from her "Never Going Back" album) – Copeland somehow managed to express joy in the midst of sorrow, hope underneath pain. She did so in a variety of ways, but mostly via the honeyed quality of her voice, the optimistic manner of her delivery and the gently comic nature of her between-song conversation. All of this made even Copeland's most searing music a fundamentally uplifting experience, notwithstanding the sober thoughts she chose to express.

It was a delicate line she walked, and she did it with uncommon care.

Shemekia Copeland plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston; $22-$42; 847-492-8860 or evanstonspace.com.

Hyde Park bash

Ari Brown, Dee Alexander, Tammy McCann, Victor Goines, Eric Schneider, Ernest Dawkins, Pharez Whitted, Ryan Cohan, Willie Pickens, John Wojciechowski and others will play a Hyde Park Jazz Festival Fundraising Jazz Jam from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St. The event will benefit the annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival, Chicago's most ingeniously staged jazz fest, by far. Admission is $10, plus minimum $10 donation. For more information, visit hydeparkjazzsociety.com.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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