Music News

New Blues

The Riverwalk Blues Festival refreshes America's most celebrated art form

This weekend, springing back after the cancellation of its original early-November date, Fort Lauderdale's venerable Riverwalk Blues Festival celebrates its 19th anniversary. That's nearly senior status in South Florida years. But the blues, of course, is a truly ancient language, extending back through generations, threading through centuries, bridging continents in its legacy. And while there are those devotees who would trap the style in the amber of purism, some of the most powerful, modern practitioners of the blues are the ones who choose to break new ground. New Times caught up with a couple of the festival's major players, Otis Taylor and Shemekia Copeland, who are also two of the blues' most ambitious innovators.

"I think I make sounds people never heard before," says Otis Taylor, the best thing to smack the blues upside the head in a decade. Beginning with 1997's When Negroes Walked the Earth to his blistering, new Below the Fold, Taylor has developed a hypnotic, dizzyingly intense personal language he calls trance blues.

"It's just like the Art Deco or William Morris movements," Taylor offers. "I figure I'll make my own movement. Why don't I name it myself? If I was a spiritual person, I'd start my own church."

Settling into topics like Rosa Parks, Native American ghosts, and World War II injustices, Taylor doesn't exactly make for light listening. His world is filled with dispossessed souls wondering which wrong turn landed them in the margins. There is, however, a thread of silvery hope running through the music, and Below the Fold shines a little sunlight into these dark places. Opening cut "Feel Like Lightning" even begins with an apostolic cry of "Oh yeah!" repeated over and over.

"I don't think about happiness or sadness," Taylor says. "I just think about how cool the songs are. I don't think, 'I'm gonna put this song on because I need more happy songs.' I put the best songs I have on there, what's going to be the most interesting."

Despite being known as a blues artist, the 58-year-old Chicago native draws inspiration from a strange spectrum that includes bluegrass, jazz, and a few things one might expect from a bluesman.

"I play gypsy music. I'm a closet flamenco guy. I like Irish music. Somebody just asked me about writing an opera, and I'm trying to figure out if I can pull it off. It would be really tough with the high notes and stuff. I ain't figured it out yet, to be honest with you, but I might.

"The straight blues was never straight blues. People tried to package that and sell it. The blues started with Africans singing in the field, working with field hollers or storytelling or tribal singing. I don't know where people came up with this 12-bar, Chicago-blues idea. That's propaganda! I'm not gonna blame it on white people because I'm not like that," he laughs. "There's a lot of black people that own blues labels too."

One of the things that sets Taylor apart from his peers is the frequent use of banjo — a haunting sound, full of dirt-floor flavor.

"I play it very rhythmically, old-timey, you know? Nobody plays like me," Taylor says. "That's probably the most original thing I do. Other banjo players know — they watch me, going, 'What the hell is he doing? It sounds Appalachian, but he's not playing Appalachian style.' I'm not bragging. I just figured it out one day."

For the past few years, Taylor's daughter Cassie has been recording and touring with him. Just out of her teens, Cassie sings with hair-raising soulfulness and plays limber bass on mostly drumless songs. Her tracks on the past two albums have been major standouts, prompting an interesting reaction from her dad. "I can't put two Cassie songs on a record because she's too strong," he says. "Don't you ever think about it! It'd be all over for me!"

While Taylor admits the phrase "trance blues" is also "just an advertising thing to separate me," it's fitting that a new language like Taylor's music have its own accent, one that emerges from deep within his bear-like chest.

"It's all dialect. When the white guys play black music, sometimes it sounds a little white. It's like if I went to speak French I wouldn't sound very French. I wouldn't have the nuances because I wasn't raised in that environment. You can copy it, but you can't always copy the attitude. So what you do is just be white and play the blues in a white way. You're better off, because then you're just going from your heart."

The sound of heavy breathing fills the phone. Righteous blues lady Shemekia Copeland is doing pushups when the call comes in. A preshow ritual? She laughs. "It's a I-need-to-stay-in-shape ritual. The music business will kill you!"

At 26, she's already a ten-year veteran of the blues circuit, possessing the grit and density of classic singers like Koko Taylor and Ruth Brown. It's a voice that really sells a lyric like "I want passion, I want feeling/I wanna be rocked from the floor to the ceiling." The daughter of legend Johnny Copeland, Shemekia grew into her music.

"I started singing really young, about 3 years old, around the house with my dad. That's what they tell me," Copeland says. "Started making music a little later on, when I got a better understanding of what the hell I was doing. I've been singing for a really long time, but I never had any training. I'm waiting to make some money so I can take some time off and learn how to sing," she laughs.

Copeland's new album, The Soul Truth, was produced by renowned Stax-Volt veteran and Booker T. & the MG's member Steve Cropper. Cropper also played guitar with the album's all-star band, composed of saxophonist Jim Horn, Chuck Leavell on piano, organist Felix Cavaliere, and ex-Zappa/Genesis drummer Chester Thompson.

"Steve is just filled with ideas, energy, and knowledge about music," Copeland says. "I'd really never seen anything like it. Working with him and Mac [Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, who produced her previous album, Talking to Strangers] — they've just taken in everything they've learned, heard, all of their experiences in their lives, 40, 50 years of whatever, and put it into their music."

Critics have accused her of moving away from the blues in recent years, as she's incorporated more soul and country elements into her sound. Her response is clear.

"I am one of those people that would like to see blues music grow. I'm 30 years younger than most of the blues fans out here. What's gonna happen to me 30 years from now when my fan of 80 can't get out to the clubs? The blues has to open up to different people.

"I don't want to keep remaking the same record," she continues. "My thing is, you can call it whatever you want. I'm just doing music that I love. To me, blues, country, and soul are almost one and the same because it's people writing about real life, and it feels real when you hear it, and it moves you. Every day that I live my life, there's a song in it."

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Dennis Cook