On a chilly night in April, Mountain Stage hosted its first live audience show in 14 months. In celebration of the 150th birthday of Huntington, W.Va., the concert unfolded under the Friday night lights of Marshall University's Joan C. Edwards Football Stadium. For this momentous occasion, Mountain Stage host Larry Groce enlisted an all-star lineup, including award-winning blues artist Shemekia Copeland, as well as eight-piece band St. Paul & The Broken Bones, singer-songwriter A.J. Croce, indie rockers Ona, and West Virginia poet laureate Marc Harshman.
"We're gonna open this hour with one of the greatest blues singers in the world," Groce said, referring to Copeland. "She was on the Mountain Stage not long after she started singing back in 2003, and she has been coming back ever since. ... In her former city of Chicago, they crowned her as queen of the blues, and we certainly endorse that."
A powerhouse songwriter and contemporary blender of blues, R&B and Americana, Copeland — who was named international artist of the year by the UK Blues Federation in May — came armed with the poignant, socially relevant songs from her 10th album, the critically acclaimed Uncivil War.
In her first gig in a year and a half, Copeland and her band kicked off the set with a blistering electric blues discourse on greed and climate change, "Money Makes You Ugly." Then, they shared more fully-charged, hard-earned wisdoms from Uncivil War, addressing gun violence in "Apple Pie and a 45," Civil Rights on "Walk Until I Ride" and from America's Child, her ninth album, the sizzling "Ain't Got Time For Hate."
"A whole lot has happened in my life since I have been to Mountain Stage. I had a baby. He's 4 now," Copeland told the audience. "Before I had him, I just liked to talk a bunch of crap about everything. But now, I'm trying to do my part to help fix this broken world we're living in through music. And I am having a whole lot of fun doing that, so hopefully when he grows up, he doesn't have to deal with the same things."
Illuminating a dark, mostly untold story from American history about 110 West African slaves smuggled into Alabama more than 50 years after slavery was outlawed, Copeland and her band shared "Clotilda's On Fire," with lyrics by her long-time manager John Hahn, and music by Will Kimbrough, who produced Uncivil War.
Nearing the end of the set, Copeland shared the album's uplifting title track. "The last two records that I've done have been about the fact that I can't stand the divisiveness in this country, and COVID didn't help me because I just want to run around and hug and kiss everybody," she said, getting a big laugh from the audience. A few seconds later, Copeland and the band launched into song, embodying her words and spreading love and light through sound.