What on earth is soul, anyway? It's like Justice Brennan said when trying to
define pornography: I know it when I see it.
It's the indescribable link between gospel and pop. It's B-3 organs screaming
through spinning Leslies. It's powerful vocals that can, in two measures, move
from a gentle rain to Hurricane Katrina. It's love and guilt and anger and
preaching rolled up into blue notes that somehow sound 50 times more sincere and
danceable than the best thing Britney ever has and ever will throw at us.
Shemekia Copeland, daughter of the late gritty-funky Texas blues guitarist
Johnny "Clyde," has soul.
Blues fans have watched Ms. Copeland mature over the last 10 years, from
14-year-old onstage foil of her father to a full-fledged blues shouter. Indeed,
I saw her open for Koko Taylor in the late 1990s, and even then they seemed like
daughter and granddaughter – with Shemekia outshining a still-great but clearly
declining Koko that particular night in Harvard Square's House of Blues.
The Soul Truth picks up where her first two records left off, but with a twist:
Booker T & The MG's guitarist Steve Cropper produced the CD, and performs on
On one hand, it's a slam-dunk. There's a great mix of rockers ("Who Stole My
Radio?") and ballads ("Poor Excuse," "Strong Enough"), served with a big helping
of Shemekia's trademark girl-power lyrics – also part of the tradition of Big
Mama Thornton and Koko themselves followed from older generations – laced with
fat horn arrangements, Memphis rhythm guitar, and of course, screaming organ
lines that add the gospel "greaze" of Aretha, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and
It's a bluesy record all the way through, and indeed this is what modern blues
sounds like – polished rock and soul – but as is the case with many Alligator
discs, there's a straight traditional blues with just acoustic guitar and vocal,
tossed out as a prop to the traditionalists who want to hear it down and dirty.
Her rendition of Eddie Hinton's "Something Heavy" does that job here, and
Shemekia – with the ultimate blues pedigree, growing up on the road with a
legend – doesn’t disappoint. Stripped bare of the full soul band, her voice
sounds even richer.
And there's funk. Maximum blues funk, the kind Chicagoans expect from Alligator,
runs strong in "Breakin' Out" and "Better Not Touch." Delicious stuff, when
Shemekia takes the mic and just dominates the band – which lays back by design,
just like Cropper and the MG’s did for Otis and other powerful Stax vocalists
back in the day.
The only thing this album lacks? The low-tech hiss and occasional feedback from
those original 1960s soul cuts, which despite their being sonic defects, they
somehow made Otis sound more desperate, Aretha more convincing in her
sermon-songs, and Sam & Dave more slick than they actually were. Thanks to
digital sound quality and reproduction, Shemekia's tracks sound as clean as
those original guys would have loved their records to sound, and in the process,
a little something is lost. But that's just a quibble. It's a small complaint –
unlike large complaints I have about contemporary would-be soul singers such as
TLC, who couldn't sing in tune to save their lives.
Shemekia Copeland, some days, probably wakes up and sees the latest, most
popular MTV videos and wonders if she was born 20 years too late. She'd have fit
in perfectly in the music world of he father's generation, when more music fans
would've appreciated her work. But you and I, we know we're privileged to be
blessed with one of the greatest young female blues voices of a generation – in
our time. She's got the milieu nearly to herself now, with the old legends
passing on one by one. We can only hope Shemekia finds enough love out there on
the touring circuit to keep her one-woman show going.
~Mojo Flucke, Ph.D.