Rory Block turns Guthrie Center into a house of blues
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 21, 2002) – Old-time delta blues informed everything Rory Block played in her first set at the Guthrie Center on Saturday night. From her visceral renderings of vintage Son House and Robert Johnson tunes, to her original, folk-pop-style compositions, everything Block played and sang was drenched in the sound of the blues.

In playing old songs like Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” and “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” and Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues,” Block seemingly channeled some spirit or energy from another place and time. She didn’t just sing and play the song. She attacked her guitar, pulling and plucking the strings with her right hand, bending and stretching them with the slide in her left hand. Her vocals were equally possessed of otherworldly energy, hooting and hollering and mumbling and shouting the words.

There was something almost cubist about her arrangement of “Terraplane Blues,” with different elements placed and approached from different angles. The song was built of bursts of chords bent by her slide, followed by a beat or two of silence, then a single bent note, the thump of her boot-clad foot, a spoken utterance, and another explosion of sound from the guitar. It was all mixed up but perfectly, artfully placed, and one realizes that Johnson was making music like this at the same time that Picasso was making paintings that similarly relied on multiple perspectives in the plane.

Bridging the gulf from delta blues to Block’s contemporary folk-pop, she offered a version of William and Versey Smith’s “Titanic (When that Great Ship Went Down),” a narrative about the well-known, ill-fated luxury liner. Built on just one chord, the song was a modal blues that had the feel of an old spiritual.

Block’s own “Like a Shotgun,” written for her late friend and engineer, Ron Bach, connected her blues to the singer-songwriter confessionalism of late-‘60s artists like Joni Mitchell. Here Block’s guitar work was rich and clear, and her impressionistic scenes of a European tour were rendered with jazzy elegance.

Block shed her guitar for a tour de force a capella version of the traditional spiritual, “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down,” pacing the stage with fully earned theatrical gestures that made one want more of this sort of performance art from Block. She also offered a bluesy version of her greatest hit, the epistolary “Love and Whiskey,” the old blues song “Canned Heat,” after which Al Wilson named his band, and Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues,” which she dedicated to her friend and peer Bonnie Raitt, pointing out that the two of them were born one day apart, both given Stella guitars when they were eight years old, and both learned their art first-hand from different masters of the Southern blues form.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 23, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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