So much of what's sold as blues these days has so little relation to the real thing that one sometimes wonders whether the term carries much meaning anymore.
Fortunately, several core artists continue to champion blues that's not pop, rock, soul, rap or what-not. You don't see them promoted on network TV shows or benefiting from vast marketing campaigns, but they're out in the clubs and concert halls, night after night, nurturing an indelible American music that cannot be destroyed merely by neglect. They won't let it.
Chicago blues singer Shemekia Copeland ranks high among them, her gutsy vocals and stripped-down instrumental accompaniments proof positive that the blues is alive – at least whenever she's in front of a microphone. She proves it again in her newest recording, "33 1/3" (Telarc), a gripping, stripped-to-basics release that reaffirms her position as one of the great hopes for the art form.
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Yet the album, which she'll celebrate with an engagement Friday night at City Winery Chicago, also bristles with a freshly contemporary message, the singer taking on such far-flung subjects as domestic violence (in "Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo"), the vanishing American dream ("Lemon Pie") and religious hypocrisy ("Somebody Else's Jesus").
"I always say that if the world ended tomorrow and a college student found this album thousands of years from now, they're going to know what was going on in 2012," says Copeland, daughter of the late Texas blues master Johnny Clyde Copeland.
"And they're going to know what I felt about it. That's the way albums used to be: You knew what was happening.
"Also, I wanted an album that you can listen to all the way through. Nowadays, it's all about: 'What's the new single? I'm going to download this song, I'm going to download that song.'"
Copeland clearly hopes to signal an alternative, perhaps somewhat nostalgic approach by calling her album "33 1/3," an explicit referencing the era of the long-play record that encouraged artists to develop larger themes.
For anyone who loves real Chicago blues, though, the greatest payoff of "33 1/3" is the sound of the music itself: raw, concise, stylistically unyielding. Listen to Copeland hiss "Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo" (with smoldering guitar accompaniment from Buddy Guy) or lavish that larger-than-life voice of hers on her father's "One More Time" and you're hearing blues delivered at a high artistic level.
Last year, Copeland told me that one of her major goals always has been to "make blues mainstream – that was like my big dream."
Yet she acknowledges that that notion probably will remain a dream for the foreseeable future – which doesn't stop her from pursuing it.
"You know what? Everything in life is a struggle," says Copeland. "You can look at the blues charts, and you can see what my struggle is. …
"It's impossible for a real blues musician to compete. I can't compete with a bunch of rock-and-roll guitar players and a bunch of pop artists.
"We don't have the funds. …
"Me, I'm just going to keep on doing what I'm doing, and hope and pray that the right people are able to listen to it and care."
One thing's for sure: If they listen, they'll care.
Also worth hearing
"Our Kind of Tune": It's the Oscars of Chicago cabaret: The city's cabaret community – under the auspices of Chicago Cabaret Professionals – gathers to hand out awards and, better still, play music. Honors will go to octogenarian cabaret legend Marilyn Maye and Chicago singer Spider Saloff, and you can bet both will sing; and to the Mabel Mercer Foundation and its late founder, Donald Smith, who did more for cabaret in America than any single impresario of the past few decades. Among the evening's other performers: Anne and Mark Burnell, Joan Curto, Elaine Dame, Elizabeth Doyle, Hilary Feldman, Laura Freeman, Carla Gordon, KT McCammond, Tom Michael, Bob Moreen, Marianne Murphy Orland, Suzanne Petri and Denise Tomasello, with Daryl Nitz hosting and Beckie Menzie as musical director. The evening begins with a "Cocktail Hour" set at 6:15 p.m. Sunday; the "Gala Performance" starts at 7 p.m. at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave.; $30-$60; phone 312-409-3106 or visit chicagocabaret.org
"The Great Flood": The Symphony Center Presents Jazz series kicks off with a major event: the Chicago premiere of "The Great Flood," a film about the Mississippi River Flood of 1927, with live score performed by the Bill Frisell Quartet. The film features rarely seen footage of the flood, which killed hundreds, displaced nearly a million and intensified the Great Migration from the south to Chicago and other northern cities. The event also serves as the launch of Symphony Center's "River" series, a periodic cultural examination of the relationship between Chicago and the waters that flow into and around it. 8 p.m. Friday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $23-$54; 312-294-3000 or cso.org
Corey Wilkes: The ever-traveling Chicago trumpeter settles in for the weekend back home for a run at the Jazz Showcase, filling in for the previously announced Eric Alexander with Harold Mabern, which was been cancelled due to scheduling conflicts. Wilkes represents a strong choice to stand in, for he can address the bebop values of the Jazz Showcase, as well as much more adventurous fare. He'll lead a quintet. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $20; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
Spider Saloff: This will be a busy weekend for the enterprising Chicago singer. For in addition to the award she'll be picking up at the Chicago Cabaret Professionals gala (referenced above in "Our Kind of Tune"), Saloff will be playing the room that has become a home to her during the past several seasons. 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Katerina's, 1920 W. Irving Park Rd.; $10; 773-348-7592 or katerinas.com
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph St.
Tickets: $22-$28; 312-733-9463 or citywinery.com