Rory Block Blues and Gospel Fest 2019 on July 26-28 Blends Genres


The Heavenly Echoes – playing the third day of Rory Block’s third annual Blues and Gospel Festival in Chatham on Sunday, July 28th – in all probability will open their set with The Temptations’ “My Girl.” They changed one word in that classic soul standard. They sing “My God” instead of “My Girl.”

“I don’t need no money, fortune, or fame 
I’ve got all the riches baby one man can claim 
I guess you’d say
What can make me feel this way?
My God, my God, my God
Talkin’ ’bout my God, my God”

“My God” adapted from “My Girl” by The Temptations
The Heavenly Echoes
The Heavenly Echoes

Duke Robillard performs Friday night, Rory Block and Shemekia Copeland share the stage Saturday and The Heavenly Echoes and The Macedonia Baptist Church Men’s Choir play Sunday.

There are more things in common between blues and gospel than there are differences, and Rory Block, like The Heavenly Echoes, has spent more than a half-century proving how close “my girl” is to “my God” to an ever more appreciative audience. She is recognized throughout the blues community as one of the greatest and most prolific acoustic blues guitarists and singer/songwriters in the field. The New York Times calls her playing “perfect, her singing otherworldly as she wrestles with ghost, shadows and legends.”

Duke Robillard
Duke Robillard

“I was 10 years old,” recalls Rory, “when Dad said, ‘God is everything. God is in trees. God’s in the sky.’ So, he inspired me to connect the dots that what I was seeing as super powerful and super soulful and super meaningful was one in the same with what he was calling God.”

At 15, Rory sat knee to knee with Son House, the Delta blues guitarist who taught Robert Johnson how to play guitar. Yeah, you read that right! Robert Johnson did not sell his soul to devil to learn his craft. He woodshedded with Son House. “That’s an exact quote,” says Rory. “Son House said to me as a 15-year-old girl sitting with him, ‘I taught Robert Johnson how to play guitar.’ He was not boasting because nobody knew who Robert Johnson was (in 1964). Son House just said it in his offhand way. When I brought it up to him, he couldn’t have been trying to impress me because there really wasn’t much to say. Nobody knew who Robert Johnson was, but when he said that, I knew it was true.”

Decades ago, when the late blues guitarist John Campbell visited Son House at his home in Rochester to learn the Delta blues master’s licks, Son’s wife forced them to play on the front porch because she didn’t want the devil’s music in her home. Son House and Rev. Gary Davis among others were both ordained ministers who also played blues at a time when much of society disapproved of mixing “the sacred” with “the profane.”

Rory Block
Rory Block

Rory Block has recorded whole albums of Delta blues material by the likes of Son House, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and Bukka White. She is also an ordained minister in the AME Church. And far from being contradictory to one another, she finds blues and gospel to be complementary in more ways than just instrumentally.

Dr. Waddell of the Payne AME Church had one piece of advice when Rory told her she wanted to be ordained. “Don’t try and be like anybody else. Don’t be imitating anyone. Be yourself. Do what you’re called to do.” 

Rory thought hard about what Dr. Waddell said. “And I felt, well, I do my live shows. I’m always saying things to people, ‘You’re not in this thing alone. We’re in this together.’ I talk about death. I talk about alcoholism. I talk about real and gritty problems, and people come up and say, ‘Thank you for (writing) “Lovin’ Whiskey.” It saved my life.’ It already is preaching the blues situation.”

My baby left me for the bottle
And the lure of the nightlife
Good times and crazy women 
And another glass of Tangueray
And if wisdom says to let him go
Then it’s hell, because you just don’t know
Until you’ve tried to love a man who’s lovin’ whiskey
Lovin’ whiskey

From “Lovin’ Whiskey”

Friday’s performer is two-time Grammy winner Duke Robillard, a master veteran guitarist who plays a huge variety of styles as if he’d invented them. His most recent album is Ear Worms. “I wanted to learn to get the feel of so many different guitar players’ music because I’m, first of all, a fan,” he says. “So, I’ve wanted to learn to play like T Bone Walker. I’ve wanted to learn to play like Johnny Guitar Watson and make it feel like you were listening to them and every guitar player that I love, and there are hundreds of them. And I do have my own style and my own way of playing in certain genres in a kind of a blues, R&B, jump swing kind of a way.”

Shemekia Copeland shares the stage with Rory Block Saturday night. Shemekia is considered the successor to Blues Queen Koko Taylor’s throne. Rolling Stone has called her “a powerhouse superstar.” Her latest album America’s Child was named the number one blues album of 2018 by Mojo, The UK’s premier music magazine, and in May she received two Blues Music Awards for Album Of The Year and Contemporary Blues Album Of The Year.

Shemekia Copeland
Shemekia Copeland

The album has singlehandedly widened the definition of blues to encompass Americana influences thanks to the input of co-writers and/or performers including John Prine, Rhiannon Giddens, Mary Gauthier, Emmylou Harris and Steve Cropper.

“I just think (the song) is the message. It’s not me,” says Shemekia. “I think the message of the song is what people are holding onto.” Her manager John Hahn writes or co-writes many of her songs. “People ask me what the songwriting process is like. For me, it’s like going to a tailor and having a suit made because the songs are tailor-made for me because John and I do talk all the time, and we have a lot of the same feelings about things, and we’re able to make beautiful music together because of it.” “Ain’t Got Time to Hate,” a song co-written by Americana superstar Mary Gauthier and John Hahn, is the song from America’s Child getting the most buzz.

Sunday’s program features The Heavenly Echoes and The Macedonia Men’s Choir, two regional gospel groups with decades of experience bringing heartfelt music to church services.

Rory Block’s Blues and Gospel Weekend

Duke Robillard Friday, July 26, 8:00pm
Advance Tickets: $25 general/$20 members/$10 students
Tickets at the Door: $30 general/$25 members/$10 students

Rory Block and Shemekia Copeland, Saturday, July 27, 7:30 p.m.
Advance Tickets: $45 general/$40 members/$10 students
Tickets at the Door: $50 general/$45 members/$10 students
Rory Block 7:30pm
Shemekia Copeland 9:00pm

The Macedonia Baptist Church Men’s Choir and The Heavenly Echoes
Sunday, July 28 at 3:00 p.m. at Church Live
Advance Tickets: $15 general/$10 Member/$5 Student

Friday and Saturday performances are at PS21 (Spaces for the 21st Century), 2980 Route 66, Chatham, New York 12037.

Sunday’s performance is at ChurchLIVE at the Old Methodist Church, 8 Church Lane, Chatham Center, New York 12037 (two miles north of PS21).

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