Music » Music Review

Blues alive: Johnny Copeland looks forward and back

by

comment

It's popular among blues enthusiasts to classify early regional styles by stereotyping them. We talk of the intense, emotionally explosive Delta blues (Charlie Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson) and the melodic, tightly structured mid-Atlantic blues of Georgia and the Carolinas (Blind Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller, Curley Weaver and Fred McMullen). Then there are the sparse, lonesome blues of Texas, featuring sustained guitar phrases, a call-and-response interplay between voice and instrument, and the alternation of good-time ribaldry and a brooding introspection (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightnin' Hopkins).

Such categories help when one's attempting to isolate regional differences and understand the cross-pollination between them that led to the blues we know today. But they're extremely limiting if one really wants to gain a deeper insight into the way artists have taken these disparate influences and molded them into distinct individual styles.

The same Delta region that produced Patton and Johnson, for instance, also produced such artists as Mississippi John Hurt, Henry Sims, and Kid Bailey, none of whom sang with the "dark intensity" so often used to describe indigenous Delta blues. And within the Delta itself, the area surrounding Bentonia, Mississippi, was the home of a unique kind of blues, exemplified by the music of Skip James and Jack Owen, that was deeply introspective and employed gentle, highly melodic lines. There was no similarity between this and the libido-drenched energy that Patton and his contemporaries poured into their performances.

In Texas as well there was much cross-pollination and variety. Taught by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Hopkins chugged out his hoedownlike guitar boogies interspersed with his own distinctive autobiographical tales--of his struggles with whiskey, the law, recalcitrant women, and recurrent waves of despair. Meanwhile, the pianists collectively known as the Santa Fe school were traveling between Richmond, Galveston, Houston, and the lumber camps and oil fields of Texas and Louisiana. These musicians incorporated diverse influences from Kansas City and New Orleans, including jazz and ragtime, as well as continuing their own regional traditions. Often they'd play with the guitarists, and musical ideas would get passed back and forth.

The rich cross-fertilization that occurred in Texas and Louisiana eventually produced some of the most varied music to emanate from any area. Beginning in Texas in the 1930s, and continuing into the postwar years in both Texas and California, artists such as T-Bone Walker (who'd once worked as "eyes" guiding Blind Lemon Jefferson) and Lloyd Glenn forged a new, profoundly sophisticated and subtle blues out of the myriad influences with which they'd grown up. A young Texas musician coming of age in the 40s or 50s, trying to develop a sound of his own, had at his disposal a virtual smorgasbord from which to choose.

That's the atmosphere in which guitarist Johnny Copeland began playing in Houston in the early 1950s. By that time the older sounds of Hopkins and the Santa Fe pianists had been laced with the swinging sophistication of jazz, with horns and keyboard backings added to the arrangements. Copeland and his contemporaries, especially Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Albert Collins, began to forge a music that had blues grit as well as the growing cosmopolitanism of the postwar sound, a music that would eventually also encompass the high-energy adolescent exuberance of rock and roll.

Copeland has retained one of the most distinctive sounds of his generation. His leads are characterized by a hornlike melodic richness and tone; they weave their way through sustained phrases, logically crafted and interspersed with the mercurial displays of dexterity that modern guitarists must use to impress young audiences raised on rock.

At Wise Fools Pub recently, Copeland showed that he's still intent on fusing the driving energy of modern blues with the deep musical feeling that he acquired from his Texas mentors. That's evident even in his choice of sidemen. On his current tour his warm-up group, the Sherman Robertson Band, offers workmanlike renditions of contemporary mainstream blues. After the warm-up set, he creates his own Johnny Copeland Band by modifying the Robertson band lineup: he keeps guitarist Robertson, the drummer, Nat Jolivette, and alto saxophonist Anthony Butler. But he replaces Robertson's bassist, Alonzo Johnson, with Randy Lippincott, and he adds keyboardist Teo Leyasmeyer. The result is a more versatile sound.

Ballads probably showcase best Copeland's knack of laying his supple melodic lines over the harsh, metallic backing of his rhythm section. At Wise Fools, he turned in a spellbinding performance of "Cut Off My Right Arm." This minor-key masterpiece recalls the nightmarish intensity of early Otis Rush ("Would I take a knife, baby, and cut off my right arm? / If I let you walk off and leave me, that's what I'd be doin' . . ."), but Copeland sings it in a wail of anguish, while Rush's quavering moan conveys an element of terror. Copeland's solo, lithe and tubular, smoothed out the lurching grind of the band with the gentleness of spirit that graces most of his work.

It's that gentleness that keeps Copeland's music from descending into the usual raunch-blues cliches. "Texas Party," one of his trademark numbers, is a burner that features Leyasmeyer's New Orleans-tinged keyboard churning furiously beneath the smooth flow of Copeland's improvisation in a way that preserves the song's roadhouse exuberance while elevating it to an entirely new level. Even at his most uninhibited and furious, Copeland has a sense of dignity that's a welcome relief from the "boogie till you puke" antics that too often pollute such hard-partying songs.

Still, it sometimes appears that Copeland's musical message is not reaching parts of his audience. "A Greater Man" is a wonderful and deeply affirming ballad, delivered in a soulful shout halfway between the melodiousness of Sam Cooke and the orgasmic spiritual ecstasy of early James Brown. In it, Copeland sings passionately of the struggle to better oneself in a spirit of dignity and grace, and the chorus--"Ain't nothing greater than a man / But a greater man"--is at once a declaration of pride and a testament to humility. But when Copeland invited the Wise Fools audience to sing it along with him, many of the men roared out "Greater man!" with a lionlike machismo, apparently missing the song's main point.

Nonetheless, Copeland's intuitive musical elegance gives almost everything he plays a welcome maturity, even when he departs from the straight blues form. This was evident at Wise Fools when he performed two instrumentals toward the end of the evening--a rocker called "Cornball" and a ballad, "Around the World," that featured guitar harmonies in the Allman-Skynard vein.

"Cornball" is progressive post-70s blues-rock played with sweaty roadhouse dedication, but "Around the World," which Copeland wrote in 1987 after a tour of Africa, showed him at his most inspired and thoughtful. The song is hardly blues at all but a shimmering musical excursion through the pop and rock styles that evolved from the blues "revival" of the 1960s. Although this might not be what one would normally want to hear from a blues musician, Copeland's dexterous fretwork and supple chording made the song a deeply moving musical experience, the more so because of the sense of wonder and spirituality that pervaded it. He was obviously inspired by his excursion to the land of his ancestors.

In "Cornball" and "Around the World," Copeland attempted to link his own musical development to newer popular forms, just as T-Bone Walker and the others had grafted jump blues and jazz onto the indigenous blues of Texas and Louisiana. This is risky business, and it doesn't always succeed: "Nobody But You," for example, began with a lurching stop-time vamp and then segued into a pop-soul bridge. It sounded to my ears like an unsuccessful attempt to update the 12-bar format and make it more palatable to modern tastes, although it was rescued by a soaring straight-blues guitar solo in the middle of the song. On the other hand, Copeland's updating of Hop Wilson's "Black Cat Bone" is a joyful success: it injects modern funk into the timeless hoodoo theme even as it acknowledges tradition by quoting from Texas patriarch Blind Lemon Jefferson ("I walked from Dallas / I walked to Wichita Falls"). This combination of forward-looking adventurousness and tribute to his roots is an intrinsic component of Copeland's approach.

Whether shouting out a raucous party tune or leading the audience in an Otis Redding-like gospel rave-up to complete the set, Johnny Copeland melds passionate blues commitment with the eclecticism and relentless exploratory drive that characterize blues musicians from his part of the country. What sets him apart from many, however, is the high-minded sense of purpose he brings to his music. He speaks often of his respect for fellow musicians living and dead, and of his desire to both advance the blues as a musical form and help deserving artists become better known. Songs like "Around the World" and a tune he wrote during an earlier African tour in 1982, "Nature Song," are evidence on a more personal level of a reflective spirit. With the joyful exuberance of his music and his own unique approach to artistic and personal growth, Johnny Copeland represents the living blues heritage at its most eloquent.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Deborah Feingold.

Add a comment