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Talent vs. hype

Turn the Heat Up
Turn the Heat Up
By Shemekia Copeland

Alligator Records: 1998

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Just Won't Burn
Just Won't Burn
By Susan Tedeschi

Tone-Cool Records: 1998

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This review first appeared in the December 5, 1998 edition of the American Reporter.

Shemekia Copeland's first album is testament to the power of influences both genetic and environmental.

The daughter of the late blues giant Johnny Clyde Copeland, the 19-year-old Shemekia has landed on the national stage with a fully formed presence and one of the most distinctive voices on the blues scene.

Playing an assertive shouting blues, Copeland is more in the style of a Katie Webster or Koko Taylor than her late father's Texas school. In the liner notes to her album, writer Art Tipaldi compares her to a blast furnace – and that's as good a comparison as any.

But Copeland brings more than just volume and energy to her singing; she exudes the confidence of a matured artist, the kind of strength that lets a singer take chances – and also makes the lyrics come across as more a testament than a performance.

Clearly, playing with her father his last two, dying years, Shemekia picked up the tricks of the trade. She's young but not inexperienced, and it's those small details only learned from experience that lend her music that extra edge.

Start with the timing. That's the hardest part for a singer to pick up – the intricate interplay between band and vocals.

Copeland's already got it down tight – knows when she can hold a note half a beat, how to draw out a pause for effect. She sounds completely confident, and when she sings that she needs a man to warm her up, your reaction is likely to be, "Oh, my!"

Her stylistic range is nearly as great as that of her vocal cords – her cover of Don Covay's R&B classic "Have Mercy" is a nice bit of soul styling and just as convincing as her straight blues.

Shemekia Copeland is one of the most exciting new talents to come on the scene in years. More than any of the pimple-faced teen-age guitar whizzes being driven to gigs in their mom's SUV, Shemekia Copeland is an adult singer of passion and talent who has already enriched the blues scene she's rapidly taking over.

     ~ ~ ~

Susan Tedeschi's debut, on the other hand, is testament to the power of marketing and connections. She was playing in a club back East when Bob Vorel, publisher of the Blues Revue – the largest-circulation blues magazine in the world – walked in. He gets hooked, the mag does a big article, and Tedeschi gets a recording contract with the independent label Tone-Cool.

But truth be told, while Tedeschi shows a ton of raw talent, she's not yet ready for the big time – or the enormous hype that's now taken hold of her career. Being hailed in some quarters as the next Bonnie Raitt, Tedeschi is years away from that level of performance – if it ever happens.

Nor is her songwriting more than competent. The best performances on her debut CD are, not coincidentally, covers of a song by Junior Wells and the standard "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean."

Her style of blues is similar to Raitt's – a rock-influenced, electric blues boogie. It's the kind of accessible, guitar-oriented music that over well with mainstream audiences who want a little flavor of the blues but who get bored if you put a traditional blues act like Cephas & Wiggins on stage. Because of that, her career has really taken off the last year – propelled, as mentioned, by a ton of media hype.

But if you want to know how far she is from the levels being predicted for her, listen to her unfortunate cover of John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery" – a song perfected by and strongly identified with Raitt. The comparisons are inevitably going to be painful for Tedeschi.

Which is really unfair to Tedeschi. She hasn't had a chance to learn the limits of her somewhat thin voice, or the nuances of how to front a band. She has a very expressive singing style that lends itself well to the style of blues she's chosen, and could indeed blossom into a wonderful artist. Right now, she's raw and unformed.

Before Angela Strehli – another singer with a limited vocal range but great passion for the blues – recorded her first album, she spent twenty years playing clubs in and around Austin, Texas, gigging with everyone from Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor to Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. By the time she got into the studio, she knew exactly what she was doing and she has since recorded some wonderful music.

Hopefully, Tedeschi will continue to absorb and learn and work toward the day she is a complete blues artist who grew from a promising young talent.