Blues singer Shemekia Copeland hit the ground running with her internationally acclaimed 1998 debut, Turn the Heat Up (Alligator)--recorded when she was just 18--and hasn't stopped for breath since. On her follow-up, Wicked, she's more fiery and assured than ever, but her flair for bombast is beginning to look like a double-edged sword. No one would deny that she can stir up a crowd with a roadhouse stomper: on "Whole Lotta Water" she climbs guitarist Jimmy Vivino's power-pop chording into gospel ecstasy, and on the thunderous "Wild, Wild Woman," when she tells the guy she's just picked up that he's "a lucky man," you don't know whether to envy him or pray for him. But the voice she uses on tunes like this is better suited to rock than blues--on "It's 2 A.M." she even sounds a little shrill, more like Pat Benatar than Etta James or even Koko Taylor. And such high-intensity theatrics sometimes threaten to overwhelm more subtle talents, like her interpretive skill--which can bring depth even to the shopworn themes of betrayal and desire. Her sandpapery croon on "Love Scene" colors its stylized pop romanticism with a streak of streetwise sass, and on the ballad "The Fool You're Looking For" her phrasing and intonation evoke Janis Joplin's broken-down juke-joint angel. On "Up on 1-2-5" Copeland sings from the point of view of an inner-city woman who sees children shot in the street but doesn't have the money to get out; she sounds young, her voice still gentle, but she also seems strong beyond her years, accustomed to the violence but not resigned to it. She saves her most eloquent performance, though, for the disc's closer, "It's My Own Tears": on this lover's lament, written by her late father, guitarist Johnny "Clyde" Copeland, she may sound like she's heartbroken about the end of a relationship, but she's really grieving for the man who introduced her to the blues. Wednesday, November 22, 9:30 PM, Buddy Guy's Legends, 754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Clayton Call.