Shemekia Copeland – 33 1/3 (2012)

Hitting the age where you’re a third of the way to 100 years old is evidently a milestone to some; certainly it was for George Harrison. Shemekia Copeland has reached that age as the newly crowned queen of the blues following the passing of Koko Taylor. Like Taylor, Copeland has the sass, the power and the passion to dish out the blues in any shade of attitude that a given song calls for.

[SOMETHING ELSE! SNEAK PEEK: “Lemon Pie” isn’t about a sweet slice of dessert but the sour leftovers awaiting the working poor, and Copeland’s tart tongue dishes it back in a hard rockin’, hard groovin’ 21st century style.]

So the first album of Shemekia’s reign comes as she reaches this still-young age. 33 1/3 continues with the gritty, rootsy but contemporary groove she found on the prior Never Going Back. On that record, she went with Oliver Wood to produce the record (of Wood Brothers fame), a move that paid off spectacularly, garnering many blues awards including our own nod for Best Blues and Roots Record of 2009. Wood stays on board for 33 1/3, with his producer mojo intact. Using a mixture of new originals and updated, blues-kissed interpretations of old folk (Bob Dylan), country (Randy Weeks) and soul (Sam Cooke) tunes, Copeland tells personal stories that relates to her audience while they reveal her own views and experiences.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: With her powerful, controlled delivery, Shemekia Copeland has always been able to bring the wood to the blues. With Never Going Back (2009) she brought in producer Oliver Wood and the result is the best album of her still-young career.]

And Copeland wastes no time in relating, giving a witty, sharp-tongued take on the disparity between the haves and have-nots on “Lemon Pie” and taking wealthy preachers to task on “Someone Else’s Jesus.”

“Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo” is a torturous first-hand account of a victim of domestic violence who conjures up the courage to break free from it, and Copeland’s despair is matched only by Buddy Guy’s devastating guitar. Contrast that to the expressive joy in her voice as she sings Cooke’s buoyant blues “Ain’t That Good News.” The swampy funk “Mississippi Mud” makes you want to get up and shake it, and this duet JJ Grey is as Southern fried as the raunchy slow blues “I Sing The Blues” is tough-sounding, southside Chicago.

Copeland’s backing band of guitarist Wood, bassist Ted Pecchio and drummer Gary Hansen deserves some kudos as well; they straddle the artificial lines separating blues, rock and soul without any fuss, delivering the music with the directness that we used to take for granted. They sound like the Rolling Stones on one song (“Jesus”) and the Allman Brothers the next (“Hangin’ Up”). Wood has a particularly rapturous slide guitar, and it kicks Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go” into a higher gear.

33 1/3 has a lot to live up to, but this is an album fit for a queen. As a worthy follow-up to Never Going Back, Shemekia Copeland’s hold on the throne is secure. Long may she reign.

33 1/3 will be released September 25, 2012 by Telarc Records.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is a CPA and mid-level data analyst for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. Contact him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews.com.