Shemekia Copeland, daughter of Texas blues artist Johnny Copeland, recorded her first record a decade ago at 19 years old. It marked the debut of a young woman on her way to becoming a blues-circuit superstar. Aided by a big voice, and excellent producers like Dr. John and Steve Cropper, she has since churned out a series of records featuring the stalwart Blues-meets-R&B sound that guarantees a party at the local bistro, whether played on the jukebox or by the woman herself when she passes through town.
Copeland could continue in this vein for as long as her health allowed--and at barely 30, that would likely be a very long time. But for Never Going Back she has bravely chosen to change direction. If her debut record was called Turn The Heat Up, this one could easily have been called Turn The Heat Down; the brassy belter's sound has gone from a high flame to a low simmer, resulting in a record that rewards repeated close listening in a way that most boogie-fests do not. Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers) steps into the production shoes, helping Copeland deliver music that sits as comfortably on Triple A radio as on the afternoon blues hour.
Songs such as "Sounds Like the Devil" push the musical and lyric boundaries of the blues by adding a hint of sophistication, yet retain the form's earthiness and soul. With the help of Oliver's brother Chris on upright bass and avant-roots master Marc Ribot on guitar, Copeland gets to stretch her vocal stylings on Joni Mitchell's jazzy "Black Crow." Lest you fear that she strays too far afield, the same crew joins her to create a new blues classic, the spooky rumba "Never Going Back To Memphis," where Ribot's reverb-drenched guitar summons up the raw sounds of Ike Turner and Wild Jimmy Spruill at their edgiest.
With Never Going Back, Shemekia Copeland revitalizes a genre in serious need of some fresh ideas. She shows that blues singers can sing about current day concerns--a "Broken World"--as easily as broken hearts. She also demonstrates that new chords and grooves won't hurt the blues if the feeling is there. Never Going Back may have turned down the burner, but the music is still cooking with gas. • Michael Ross