Citizen Cope (aka Clarence Greenwood) returned to The Orange Peel on Tuesday, Nov. 6, aka election day. So maybe the tension in the room was real — an undercurrent or agitation beneath the shine of an early-in-the-week concert. Like how, before the show (while opening act Kenny Roby was working his way through a set of slowly-building songs) two girls and two guys in the will call line got in an argument. About whether or not the opener was worthy of the spotlight. Or something.
The thing is, Cope’s material deals with social justice, the human condition, struggle and perseverance. His words are far from party anthems, but his island sway, his reggae grooves and skank guitar touches seem to hit the dancing feet of many of his fans before his heavy-hitting lyrics reach their minds. That’s not a bad thing. Music is the vehicle for poetry and its message. Cope, his hair pulled into a bun, delivers his message straightforward, standing front and center with nothing but an acoustic guitar between him and the world. He knows he’s the messenger.
He also knows his message needs a hell of a vehicle. In Cope’s touring band, he’s found exactly that.
Opening with “Back Then,” as grainy black and white images of cityscapes appeared on an 11-pannel screen behind the band, Cope set the scene. He played and sang while his musicians filled in all of the spaces. The band — including bassist Preston Crump and pianist Erik Deutsch — was perhaps the most polished, professional, nossa nova-meets-funk (not literally) outfit to be found. It’s unlikely that group of musicians could find a piece of music that they couldn’t play to glossy perfection. And on that lead-off song, the wah-wah was the clear winner.
On the title track to his new album, One Lovely Day, Cope started alone on guitar before band rushed in like a warm wave. Cope’s voice, buoyed by the smoothness of the music, was ragged at the edges. He sings with a charming slur and drag like a tired little boy — an odd match but a brilliant foil to his slick backing group.
“Something to Believe In” was played with a rich Caribbean lilt; “Peace River,” all funk grooves, came with a projected image of the Earth, as seen from space; “Dancer From Brazil” ambled along, country-ish, so behind the beat that the song practically tripped on itself. In a cool way.
Cope has two things mastered: knowing how to work a beat to its suavest, slinkiest maximization; and connecting to authentic emotion in his lyrics.
But do those lyrics reach their mark? Cope’s darkly charged “Bullet and a Target,” in pink lights and smoke machine clouds, ran through its litany of injustices (drug abuse, bad relationships, war) set to a pulse so danceable that instead of crying at the wrongness of the world, the crowd was fist-pumping in time to the drums. This is the point where Cope really hit his stride, however. He had the audience clapping along, was dancing behind his guitar and amping up his voice to meet the energy of the room.
Because really, who wants to cry on the dance floor? And maybe the best concert is the one that lifts spirits and then sends its listeners home to digest first the spectacle, the lights and the beats, and later the words. Maybe meaning descends in layers only after the target is struck. Maybe Cope is a messenger, but also an archer with dead aim. (Disguised as a dude who knows how to work a reggae groove.)
Photos from Citizen Cope’s Facebook page.