Les Copeland,
Don't Let the Devil In
(Earwig, 2010)

Les Copeland lives in the small city of Vernon, British Columbia, which one imagines is not flush with blues artists. If Copeland is its only blues singer and guitarist -- never having been there, I don't know that for a fact -- and if Don't Let the Devil In is an accurate record of his talents, Vernon is admirably represented.

Judging from the photographs, Copeland is well into middle age, but Devil, the first recording of his to come my way, is also his debut for the respected Chicago-based blues label Earwig. It's not quite fair, however, to force-fit Copeland into one genre, since blues is not the only music going on here. Copeland's listening clearly extends to a range of rooted sounds, including non-blues varieties of traditional folk as well as modern jazz. If his musical vocabulary is not as expansive as Ry Cooder's -- then, whose is or for that matter needs to be? -- sometimes he does indeed call Cooder to mind, which is certainly no bad thing. Not one to try to conceal the influence, Copeland features a slide-guitar instrumental titled "Ry Cooder." It should be noted, perhaps, that a later cut, "Wet Paper Bag," which seems not to be an intentional homage, is a whole lot like something Tom Waits could have written.

Devil is essentially a solo CD, with Copeland's singing and guitars (acoustic and electric) handling the bulk of the work. All but one of the songs (a stark, skeletal reading of the Robert Nighthawk standard "Anna Lee") are his own compositions. Here and there, country-blues old-timer David "Honeyboy" Edwards joins him on second guitar or Michael Frank (Earwig's president) on harmonica.

Copeland will grab your attention instantly with the strong opener, "That Needing Time," whose melody borrows from the traditional "Jack o' Diamonds" but whose words express near-apocalyptic emotions. Like Bob Dylan's, Copeland's songwriting grows organically from the tradition, not in the imitative sense but in a fashion that integrates the old and the new as only a knowledgeable, mature artist can conceive and then put into practice. It demonstrates that modern folk music need not be the bland swill that rootless singer-songwriters too frequently concoct. Copeland's slide and finger-picking guitar is an object of wonder, and his singing is richly suited to his tales of wry humor, romantic woe, and spiritual longing, at once personal and universal. There is even a listenable children's song.

As a general principle Don't Let the Devil In is sound advice. All the same, you might let Devil -- the compact disc, not the evil entity -- into your music collection, where it will neither cause you harm nor soon wear out its welcome. Wait'll you hear the simple refrain (in "Silently") "I will take you to the station in this town," and you'll be reminded how, in the voice of a master, a song lyric can feel like the whole world.

music review by
Jerome Clark

18 December 2010

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