A while back, a friend described the first time he heard Muddy Waters in high school: “It was like the first time I tried whiskey. I couldn’t handle it. It was too rough. I had to listen to Sam & Dave for a while still before I was ready to try it again, and it still hurt.” If Muddy was whiskey, then the Delta blues is moonshine, pure rocket fuel (Kenny Chesney is a strawberry wine spritzer), and you’d better be ready for it to hit you hard.
Rory Block’s re-telling of the Delta blues is more refined than moonshine and goes down smoother, but not by much. While other contemporary blues and rock artists distill the music into something sweeter and more palatable, Block has no qualms about hitting you with the hard stuff fresh out of her own still.
The crowd at WAMC’s Linda Norris Auditorium in Albany on Thursday night was obviously craving the hard stuff, and Block delivered. She wasted no time in getting down to it, starting the night with Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues,” which she played with a ferocity not heard on the original recordings. Though Block has the ability to play Johnson’s music note-for-note as originally recorded, she presents it with such renewed energy that it’s easy to forget the song was first recorded almost 80 years ago, or that you’ve heard it covered dozens of times since.
Throughout the night, she seemed to channel Delta masters to help her perform their songs, though her spirit shone through as strong as theirs. It was as if we were watching two people performing, as if Block’s body was inhabited by the ghosts of Robert Johnson, Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell in turn as she tore through their music.
Though most of the set revolved around blues from the ’30s and ’40s, the night was punctuated by her original songs. Songs like “Gypsy Boy” and “Silver Wings” owe more to folk ballads than to Delta blues, but they were delivered with such passion that it was easy to forget that just a few minutes before you were watching this woman setting fire to “Me and the Devil Blues.”
In performance, her conversation was as important as her singing, with most songs preceded by a story or a history lesson. At one point, while switching guitars, she deadpanned, “Sometimes I try to play another song without saying a word. It’s difficult.” Despite her intentions to keep going, she couldn’t help but delve into the story of how Bonnie Raitt inspired her to develop her slide playing style, and how she talked the mechanics at the Mobil station in downtown Albany into cutting a socket wrench down to make the first slide that fit her fingers properly.
Some performers are like drinking buddies and have little to offer unless they’re helping you get blind drunk as fast as possible. Rory Block is more like your neighbor, who you’d spend the whole evening talking with and sipping your liquor slowly, keeping a warm glow all night.
Review and photograph by Eric Gleason
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Decades into her own career, Block showed no evidence of slowing down in either her playing or singing, despite joking around about aging. Well, not so that anybody would notice. She sang with the same fearlessness as she played, confident in her pitch and capable of low swoops and high, arching falsetto. She sang both the exultant Gospel of ‘Daniel Prayed’ and the animal-extinction lament ‘The Last Leviathan,’ her lone encore, a cappella, and she nailed both.”
RORY BLOCK SET LIST
Death Letter Blues
Frankie And Albert
Me And the Devil Blues
I Be Bound
From the Dust
The Water Is Wide
The Last Leviathan