Shemekia Copeland brings the blues to Berkeley

Shemekia Copeland plays Freight & Salvage on Saturday (photo by Joseph A. Rosen)
Shemekia Copeland plays Freight & Salvage on Saturday, Jan. 9. Photo: Joseph A. Rosen

The child of blues royalty, Shemekia Copeland made her recording debut at the tender age of 19. Her 1998 album Turn Up the Heat (Alligator) introduced a prodigious new talent already road-seasoned from touring with her father, Texas blues great Johnny Copeland. She’s more than lived up to her promise since then, collecting awards and amassing honors with an intermittent flow of albums (2015’s excellent Outskirts of Love found her back on the Alligator label after a fruitful stint at Telarc).

“I like to take my time,” says Copeland, 36, who performs at Freight & Salvage 8 p.m. Saturday. “I don’t like to be rushed. We handpick songs, and that makes the biggest difference. A lot of people put out records so quick. Everybody’s in a hurry and that contributes to the demise of this business. I always say, what you put out into the universe is so important, you’ve got to take your time. I often wonder if these young girls who make records these days are going to be proud of what they did later on.”

Copeland learned all about quality control at the feet of her father, a soul-drenched guitarist and singer who born in Louisiana and came of age on the Houston scene inspired by T-Bone Walker. Comfortable collaborating with a wide array of artists, he recorded with jazz masters like Arthur Blythe, George Adams and Randy Weston and zydeco legend Buckwheat Zydeco. When health problems slowed him down in the mid-1990s (he died in 1998 at the age of 60), Copeland brought his knee-high daughter on the road, and she soaked up musical insight by his side.

“What’s being instilled as a child definitely effects you later on,” she says. “Music was always very important to my father, and I watch him write down something, go back and change it, work on it and work on it. I watched that process all my life.”


Copeland’s formidable band features guitarist Willie Scandlyn, bassist Kevin Jenkins, drummer Robin Gould, and lead guitarist Arthur Neilson, who’s been with her since 1998. While she’s self-deprecating about her role as a bandleader (“This is pretty much Arthur’s band and I’m the chick singer,” she says), Copeland is a savvy artist who like her father hasn’t been bounded by stylistic conventions.

Produced by The Wood Brothers’ Oliver Wood, Outskirts of Love features her Afrobeat-tinged take on his “Devil’s Hand” (Johnny Copeland was one of the first blues artists to make an album in Africa with 1985’s Ivory Coast-recorded Bringing It All Back Home on Rounder). Most impressive is the way she puts her stamp on songs defined by artists like from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (“The Battle Is Over”) and Solomon Burke (“I Feel A Sin Coming On”) to ZZ Top (“Jesus Just Left Chicago) and Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Long As I Can See The Light”). Whatever she sings, Copeland makes it the blues, and she doesn’t have much time for people who police the music’s borders.

“It’s a contemporary blues record, that’s what it is,” Copeland says. “I don’t understand blues purists. Everyone has borrowed from the blues in some shape or form, but when we borrow it’s not blues anymore? All I do is take a little bit from what I love and listen to. We’re all brothers and sisters in this music, jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll, gospel. We’re all connected. Whether it’s Pavarotti or Brazilian samba, if I’m singing it it’s blues.”

Recommended gigs: Jake Shandling, Hardly Strictly Personal

Jake Shandling
Jake Shandling

Drummer Jake Shandling, a Berkeley High alum, brings a new project to Jupiter on Saturday with reed expert Cory Wright and bassist Doug Stuart. A valued music teacher and versatile accompanist, Shandling plays several gigs around the region this month with the influential reggae act Harrison Stafford and the Professor Crew. He also performs with Bay Area saxophone great Noel Jewkes at Chapel of the Chimes on Jan. 17, and with pianist Joe Warner at the Cheese Board on Jan. 28.

The NextNow Performance Series presents Hardly Strictly Personal: A Celebration of Post-Beefheart Music at the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space, 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, and Friday January 15, 8 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. A benefit for EarthJustice, the Homeless Action Center, and the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, the event features more than two-dozen projects, including singer/songwriter Owen Maercks with guitar explorer Henry Kaiser, Swedish saxophonist Biggi Vinkeloe’s quartet with bassist Steuart Leibig, drummer Donald Robinson, and flutist/vocalist Emily Hay, Rent Romus’s Life’s Blood Ensemble, Instagon, Filthmilk, Les Trois Chapeaux, Erick Glick Reiman, Bridge of Crows, and many more.


Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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