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Blues divas raise the bar again

Royal Blue
Royal Blue
By Koko Taylor

Alligator Records: 2000

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Soft Place to Fall
Soft Place to Fall
By Deborah Coleman

Blind Pig Records: 2000

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Wicked
Wicked
By Shemekia Copeland

Alligator Records: 2000

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This review first appeared in the November 12, 2000 edition of the American Reporter.

Like B.B. King on the men's side of the aisle, Koko Taylor is the reigning female ruler of blues. There's no real debate about the issue – just as Miles was the leading jazz monarch up to his death, or the Rolling Stones will rule the rock roost as long as they can still play, Koko Taylor will never be dethroned as long as she draws breath.

What sets Taylor or King or the Stones apart from those who would take their place in the pantheon of musical gods is that they never rest on their laurels. Taylor doesn't need to keep putting out some of the best blues albums in order to stay No. 1.

But Taylor would never sell her fans short, never give less than her best. If she records and tours less since the death of her husband a few years back, well, when she IS performing, she's still at the top of her game.

"Royal Blue," her first album in seven years, is Taylor at her ear-splitting best. Nobody can belt out a blues chorus like Taylor, one of the most powerful singers, male or female, this planet has yet seen.

But it's a carefully controlled power, one she administers judiciously. There's far more at work here than simple volume – Taylor is also one of the most expressive blues singers, with a subtlety to match her horsepower.

This latest release shows Taylor still moving comfortably between the rock and blues worlds, with songs by Melissa Ethreridge ("Bring Me Some Water" as a powerhouse blues number), Jon Tiven ("Blues Hotel," with B.B. King providing vocal interplay and his usual phenomenal guitar work) and Ray Charles ("But on the Other Hand"). There are also four songs by Taylor herself here, with Keb' Mo' sitting in on "The Man Next Door."

No telling if Taylor is back to full-time recording and touring, but for the time it took to record this disc, she was as good as she's every been.

     ~ ~ ~

For the longest time, our rock and blues guitar heroes were overwhelmingly white men, especially once Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley's 15 minutes of fame were used up. In the late '60s black men were, grudgingly, allowed a space back on-stage, mostly after Jimi Hendrix redefined the whole art.

In the late '80s, Bonnie Raitt and Sue Foley elbowed their way into the spotlight, opening up the process to other women as well. Now comes Deborah Coleman, with enough stage presence and pure talent to possible become the first black woman guitar hero.

Not that there haven't been other black women guitarists with as much ability as anyone else, but the social opportunity didn't exist. Ironically, now that social barriers are falling, Coleman may find that new business barriers may prevent her breaking through – the corporate takeover of American radio has resulted in the death of both Top 40 and AOR stations where stars like Hendrix, Michael Bloomfield, Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan found a national audience.

Regardless of whether music fans ever discover her not, though, Coleman clearly belongs in the above exalted company. Her solos are among the most confident and imaginative in the business, and she has a better than competent voice to match. Most important, on her fourth recording, Coleman takes a quantum step ahead in songwriting. Her three originals here are the best songs on the disc, outshining her covers of Bo Diddley, Little Johnny Taylor and others. "Soft Place to Fall" is one of the best blues songs of the year, "Another Hoping Fool" is a brilliant bit of drama set to a slow, loping blues groove.

Is the world ready for a strong, gorgeous black woman to go head-to-head with the Claptons and Becks of the world? Coleman is coming on with a head of steam – we better be ready ...

     ~ ~ ~

A couple years back, when a semi-talented Bonnie Raitt knockoff was getting all the blues press and being invited to tour with the biggest names in the blues world, those who had been lucky enough to hear Shemekia Copeland's debut CD, "Turn the Heat Up," could only shake their heads in wonder.

While some skinny redhead who couldn't even sing in tune was raking in the dollars, Copeland was simply redefining the music for the next generation.

Being the daughter of the late Johnny Clyde Copeland, one of the best bluesmen to ever pick up a guitar, surely doesn't hurt. But Shemekia's got her own thing going, a bigger-than-all-outdoors approach to the blues that owes as much to Koko Taylor, Ruth Brown and the late Katie Webster as it does to her father.


Her new CD, "Wicked," pushes even further than her first one. Copeland shows all the indications of an artist who's poised to continue getting better for the foreseeable future. You go see Shemekia Copeland now, and you'll be bragging to your friends about how you "discovered" her years from now when the rest of the world finally figures out that that skinny-butt white girl can't sing a lick and finds out just how good Copeland is.