Greg Copeland – In His Own Words

dianajamesIf the measure of a great record is how it reveals itself over time, then Greg Copeland’s “Diana and James” is a masterpiece.  It’s a blend of “Cold Mountain” musical textures and Cormac McCarthy literary elements like murder, regret and brooding historical reverie.

But its arrival, 26 years past Copeland’s incendiary debut album, still doesn’t unravel the mystery of the years connecting both works.

Where did he go, and who returned?  These and other questions were recently put to Greg Copeland.

What have you done with the fury that shaped so much of “Revenge Will Come”?

The fury you’re talking about is part of my emotional DNA and can’t be extracted; it’s a kind of fuel in my engine, but now I’m driving the same car to a different place.

For me, “Revenge Will Come” is largely an outward-looking record … mostly informed by my own version of the punk ethos.   The Clash was literally “the only band that mattered” for me when I wrote it, and music was one big wasteland between “London Calling” and Joe Henry’s “Scar”.  I can’t think of a single record that really knocked me out between those two.

But [much of the genre is] about blame — i.e., how stupid and shallow OTHER people are (corporate figures, girlfriends, mindless workers, etc.) and how THEY have messed ME up.  The big “f*ck all” that’s crouched in the heart of the best punk music can (and, for me, did) deteriorate into a refusal to recognize that I was to blame as much as anyone else for my own condition.

The two records sound like they might have come from different artists.

I know and people have been telling me that and I kind of like that actually.  There’s something about that that appeals to me, because I don’t feel like the person that made “Revenge Will Come.”  I mean, in a sense I do, but as a songwriter I don’t.  As a songwriter I feel very different.  So it would make sense that they would seem different.

“Diana and James” is an inward-looking record, because that’s where love is — and love (with all its sharp-toothed details) is the central theme of the record.

How did your return to songwriting happen?

I didn’t make a conscious decision to begin writing songs again; the songs themselves simply insisted that they be written … I was the only “volunteer” in the room at the time.  Every one of those songs is a direct reflection of something specific that was happening in my own … life.

I would wager that all of the songs on “Diana and James” have two or more contradictory emotions at work at the same time, like the counter-springs in a clock, because that’s what I was going through.  “King Confusion” indeed.

Where did you go after “Revenge Will Come”?

I decided, I gotta make a living.  A friend of mine who worked at a really big law firm … had this huge case, and they were hiring paralegals.  Not off the street, but they might as well have been.  If you could read English they could use you.  I just showed up thinking I could get about six weeks worth of work.  I decided that I wanted to be a paralegal, and I was for a couple of years, then I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, and I fell in with a law firm that I just love, it was real ethical and everything you’d want, and I just kind of did what they did.

Then you re-discovered your muse?

That lasted for 15 years and I just got sick of it.  I got to this point where I just had to write.  I had done it before and I had that gene that knew what to do, but I didn’t have anything.  Then a friend asked me, are you still writing songs.  He knew what I’d done before and was curious why I wasn’t doing it any more.  Then he asked me why, and I hadn’t really considered it.  So I had to figure out why, and just get past it.  Having gone through that process, it took me a couple of years to feel it was real, rather than just a whim.

So now you’re a lawyer who writes?

It was something where there was a particular moment, a three-month period where I changed from being a lawyer who wrote songs to being a songwriter with a day job.  And that’s where I am now.  I love my job, there’s a lot of flexibility, I don’t have to do any bullshit, I do a good job, work about half of what real lawyer works, dollar in dollar out, and the rest of the time write.

Do you have any plans to perform live?

I’m a writer.  You can phrase it anyway you want.  I love writing, I love recording, but when the record’s done, my job is done.  I don’t hold myself out as an entertainer; I’m a songwriter.  I’m not the guy up on stage.  It’s not my thing – at least not now.

Mavis Staples – Hope At The Hideout

mavisliveAlong with her fellow family members in the Staples Singers, Mavis Staples provided a soundtrack for the American civil rights movement, something she refers to simply as “The Struggle”.  So it’s fitting that Staples would release the stunning live collection “Hope At The Hideout” on November 4, the day the United States elected its first African-American President.

Working in front of an intimate crowd in her hometown of Chicago, the 69-year old singer brings ferocious energy to protest songs and spiritual standards.

Much of the material is drawn from the 2007’s Ry Cooder-produced “We’ll Never Turn Back,” but it’s more raw and immediate in this setting, with the audience behaving less like patrons in a club than parishioners in pews.

She leads off with a growling rendition of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” and never lets up from there.

Highlights include J.B. Lenoir’s swampy “Down In Mississippi,” given a powerful autobiographical touch with Staples’ story of colored-only water fountains.  On “Wade In The Water” guitarist Rick Holmstrom channels John Fogerty while Mavis leads the group, which includes her sister Yvonne, in a rousing call-and-response.

There’s a sense of living history throughout, but never more so than three songs at the record’s center, offered in sequence.  She brings the same fierce determination to “Why Am I Treated So Bad” that Pops Staples did when he wrote it in response to a Martin Luther King sermon.  “Freedom Highway” brims with hope and optimism; on “We Shall Not Be Moved,” Staples recounts a confrontation at a southern lunch counter a mere 45 years ago.

After performing a rousing encore of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” Staples isn’t ready to leave the stage, so she launches into an equally spirited “On My Way”.  The audience’s energy level acts like an extra instrument, as shouts and whoops of joy punctuate her (as one writer so vividly put it) “honey and grits” voice .  Unwilling to let the night end, she finishes with “I’ll Take You There,” one of her biggest Staples Singers hits.

“I’ve had such a good time, “ she finally thanks the crowd.  “I’m home – so I guess I’ll come back tomorrow night.”  You’ll probably do the same, and let this inspiring live album go immediately for a second spin.

Local Rhythms – Led Zeppelin “Idol”

The latest news for the Zeppelin-obsessed came last week, when Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford revealed that Steven Tyler recently jammed with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham in a London studio.

Don’t read too much into it, though.

Tyler idolized bands like the Yardbirds, Cream and Zeppelin back in his Sunapee Barn days, so I’m sure he had a fantastic time. But Whitford says Page’s high-powered invite was really designed to goad Robert Plant into touring.

“He was trying to light a fire under Robert,” Whitford told a British TV host. “Come on! Come on, Robert, let’s go!”

God bless him, Plant didn’t bite. A statement on the singer’s web site called the rumors “both frustrating and ridiculous.”

For that, he’s still my hero.

Jones, however, who seethed when Page/Plant made “Unledded” in the mid-90’s without him, is fixated on a classic rock payday. “But we don’t want to be our own tribute band,” the bassist told the BBC.

To which I reply, why not?  Boston plucked their new lead singer from a karaoke bar; Journey found Steve Perry’s doppelganger on YouTube.

More recently, Yes replaced the ailing Jon Anderson with Benoit David, who until the call came had been fronting – you guessed it – a Yes tribute band.

This could make for great reality television. I know, INXS did it on “Rock Star,” but their lead singer was dead.

Robert Plant is very much alive, and apparently doesn’t have any plans for the next couple of years beyond a possible follow-up to “Raising Sand,” the album he made with Allison Krauss.

Though he may not be interested in playing with Led Zeppelin, perhaps Plant could be coaxed into helping pick his replacement.

Picture it – with dreams of stadium shows filling their heads, cover bands count off “Whole Lotta Love” with renewed vigor.

Aging rockers clear out garage practice space, and once again squeeze into ripped old bell bottomed jeans – all for a chance at the top.

High drama ensues when Plant, weary of these Golden God wannabes, says, “sod it all, I’ll do it myself,” and then demurs.

As each hopeful takes a shot, real time ticket price estimates crawl across the screen like a Dow Jones report.  That, after all, is the reason for the exercise.  How much will fans pay to see this farce?

I’ve got a better idea – save your money, and check out some local talent:

Thursday: Jason Cann, Casa del Sol – When this newly opened Ascutney restaurant was known as Moguls in the 1980s, it hosted bands like Foghat and Marshall Tucker. The live music tradition continues weekly with Cann, one of my favorite local singer-songwriters, and in January, Wise Rokobili will perform Saturdays.   There are plans to present even bigger names in the future – good news indeed.

Friday: Red Molly, Boccelli’s – This trio, who met around a Falcon Ridge campfire a few years back, has built an avid area following since playing the Roots on the River festival in 2007.  Their gorgeous harmonies can take your breath away. I could watch them for hours.  Upper Valley fans got a taste of them last summer. If you like smooth, elegant folk music, you’ll love Red Molly.

Saturday: Bob Marley, Claremont Opera House – One of the funniest people alive, and the hardest working comedian I know is back for another area show.  Unlike many comics, Bob brings a new set of material every time he comes to town.  He can form a bit in his head in the morning and have it audience-ready by the time he walks on stage, riffing on current events, his parents (who must love the exposure), and life in New England -the essence of Ha!

Sunday: Nine Inch Nails, Worcester Centrum – I don’t typically plug many arena shows, but it’s worth noting that as the music business implodes, NIN (who play in Manchester Saturday) is thriving.  Why?  Leader Trent Reznor does right by the fans.   He gives away entire albums on the band’s web site, has no label and kowtows to no bosses.  He keeps things interesting and never forgets the reason for his success – and NIN sells out everywhere they appear.

Tuesday: Dartmouth Wind Symphony, Spaulding Auditorium – Highbrow music from an ensemble celebrating its 25th year with founder/director Max Culpepper.  This show features selections from Aida, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, the Marriage of Figaro and other masterpieces, arranged for flute, clarinet, trumpet and other wind instruments.

Wednesday: Off the Beaten Path, Woodstock Town Hall Theatre – Subtitled “A Jazz Tap Odyssey,” this program joins a jazz quartet consisting of piano, bass, drums and woodwinds with a company of six tap dancers.  They perform a program inspired by proto-environmentalist author Rachel Carson.  There’s a special “Arts In Education” program for school kids at 12:30, and a public performance at 7:30.