FEST: Rory Block’s Gospel & Blues Fest in Chatham This Weekend
By Don Wilcock
It may be too simplistic to say the only difference between gospel and blues is that one is about Him (or Her) with a capital H and the other about her (or him) with a lowercase h. But it is not hyperbole to state that both genres are measured in passion and truth of conviction. Those very ingredients are what traditionally have caused a deep schism between followers of each. Rory Block’s Gospel and Blues Fest Weekend from Friday-Sunday (July 20-22) at Chatham’s PS21 obliterates that schism with a line-up that promises to dish out both passion and truth of conviction at a level so high it just may levitate concertgoers into a sublime frenzy.
Host and Friday night headliner Rory Block is a five-time Blues Music Award winner with half a century of performing experience. She’s a phenom that the Blues Foundation calls “the top female interpreter and authority on traditional country blues worldwide.” I would simply add that she does not need the “female” qualifier. There is no one performing today, man or woman, who can outperform her on acoustic interpretations of the Delta blues progenitors Son House, Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Texas blues shouter Diunna Greenleaf brings to the Chatham stage Saturday night a raw but right style of performing that channels Big Mama Thornton (who wrote “Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog” and inspired Janis Joplin). Greenleaf rubbed shoulders with Mahalia Jackson, Joe Tex and Johnny Taylor as a child and was close friends with the late Queen of the Blues Koko Taylor and boogie pianist Katie Webster.
Finally, on Sunday afternoon, Robert Johnson’s grandson Steven Johnson brings in 18 singers from the Strait Way Ministries Gospel Choir, who sing at the Mississippi church where he is a minister. With his band, Johnson will also play blues standards including his grandfather’s best loved classics that may include “Terraplane Blues,” “Cross Road Blues” and “Sweet Home Chicago.”
As wonderful as that all that is, what is truly significant is that all three of these acts have credentials that cross over between blues and gospel. Rory Block and Steven Johnson are both ordained ministers, Block in the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church. Greenleaf’s father was a minister who broke with the conventions of his era and performed secular as well as religious music. Her mother would sing all manner of songs while doing chores with her as a child.
You want passion and conviction? This is what Jonn Del Toro Richardson said about Greenleaf when he was her guitarist at the 2005 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. “Diunna likes to take herself to ‘that place,’ and I’ll go there with her anytime she wants to go. It’s a fun ride. She does things that most people don’t do.
She makes my job real easy.” Greenleaf explained it this way, “Sometimes my feet aren’t touching the ground unless someone comes over and touches me and brings me back. Sometimes, when I’m gone, I go a little too far. I’m completely away. Jonn will know it, and he’ll come over and touch me.”
I’ve known Rory Block for 45 years. I’ve watched her live at least three lifetimes in that period. There is a trend today to showcase prodigies, and Block qualified as one of those at age 14 when she studied at the feet of such icons as Rev. Gary Davis, Bukka White and Skip James. But many prodigies burn brightest in the heat of their youth. Not Rory. She has grown as standard bearer of traditional delta blues guitar, as a woman carrying on the legacy of Bessie Smith on her new album A Woman’s Soul, and as caring standard bearer for breaking down the barriers between blues and gospel.
This event promises a dynamic fusion of two worlds that were never meant to be separate.
WHAT: Rory Block’s Gospel and Blues Fest Weekend
WHO/WHEN: Rory Block at 8pm on Friday (July 20)
Diunna Greenleaf at 8pm on Saturday (July 22)
Strait Way Ministries Gospel Choir with Steven Johnson at 2pm on Sunday (July 23)
WHERE: PS21, Chatham
HOW MUCH: $25; students $10 per show
ADDITIONAL UPCOMING 2018 FESTIVALS
GREY FOX BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL @ Walsh Farm, Oak Hill, July 19-22
DIVINE VIBES @ the Beer Diviner, Petersburg, July 20-22, FREE
BLACK ARTS & CULTURAL FESTIVAL @ the Empire State Plaza, Albany, August 4, FREE
NEW YORK STATE FOOD FESTIVAL @ the Empire State Plaza, Albany, August 8, FREE
DIRT FARMER FESTIVAL @ Arrowood Farms, Accord, August 19
EASTBOUND THROWDOWN @ Irwin Farm, Salem, September 7 & 8
FRESHGRASS @ MASS MoCA, North Adams, September 14-16
PEARLPALOOZA @ North Pearl Street, Albany, September 15, FREE
HOPS & HARVEST FESTIVAL @ the Empire State Plaza, Albany, September 19, FREE
HISPANIC HERITAGE CELEBRATION @ the Empire State Plaza, Albany, September 22, FREE
OUTLAW MUSIC FESTIVAL @ Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, September 23