Rory Block and The Heavenly Echoes to Perform an All Gospel Show at ChurchLive in Chatham, September 28
It has been said that the only difference between gospel and blues is that the object of the singer’s affection, the “he” or “she,” depending upon the sex of the singer, is replaced by “He” with a capital H. That said, the relationship between blues and gospel traditionally has been a stormy one. Rory Block’s benefit concert for her ChurchLive in Chatham this Saturday, September 28, is an incredible example of breaking down the walls between the two genres.
“To me, generally speaking, all the music that I grew up with seemed spiritual,” says Rory. “My mother sang these beautiful ballads from the British Isles, and she’d sing all these sad songs. (A lot of) the songs she sang to me were songs about loss and tragedy. I can quote so many of the sad words from songs. and they were all based on these stories: “Barbara Allen,” “Fair William,” those types of really beautiful ballads. So, I was already listening to music as a little child and wiping tears away because it had such power to it.”
On Saturday, Rory opens for The Heavenly Echoes, my favorite gospel band whose infectious delivery ranks up there with iconic acts like the late Otis Clay, The Five Blind Boys of Alabama and The Mighty Clouds of Joy. For the first time that I can remember, Rory will be doing an entire set of all gospel songs on acoustic guitar. Not that that is a stretch for her. She’s made gospel a part of her repertoire since she first sat toe to toe with Son House at 14 in 1964, learning his licks. Son House taught Robert Johnson how to play guitar but was also an ordained minister. So is Rory.
Pastor Ira Waddell was Rory’s mentor. “She said something to me that was so valuable. She said, ‘Don’t try to be anyone else. Just be yourself.” Rory was tempted when preaching in someone else’s church to emulate the style of that church’s pastor. Pastor Waddell counseled her, “You preach the way you would do it.” She also told Rory to take her time. “Don’t rush because you can pause when you’re talking to people.”
“I thought, ‘That’s helpful, too,’ says Rory. “I thought those two things were a real help.”
It is no leap of faith, then, for Rory to play an all gospel set. To her, all music is spiritual. “That’s right. That’s correct. There is some kind of an energy that comes through you with creativity, and if you’re really plugged in, you know it’s not you. It’s coming through you no matter what you do. You can feel there’s this powerful energy that you might identify as spiritual that’s coming through you and you go, ‘Oh, I feel inspiration right now. This powerful feeling, this energy is coming through me, and it’s creating something, and I’m witnessing it as it happens.’”
She felt that energy from the moment she met iconic blues artists like The Rev. Gary Davis, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and Son House. “Blues came along in my life when I got to be about 14 or so, 12, 14, 15 years old, and that’s such a heart and soul music. I mean, it just immediately grabs you, and there’s a message in it, and that can’t be separated from spirituality. Anything that’s deeply emotionally powerful is spiritual to me. I can’t speak for anyone else but me that deep emotional power is basically the meaning of spirituality….I have to always have music around me to feel the energy I need to live. I mean, it’s energy, it’s spirituality. I live and breathe music.”
Rory Block was named acoustic blues Artist of The Year in May at the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards. Not Female Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year. There were no conditional adjectives needed. She is now widely acknowledged as the best acoustic blues artist, period! And it only took her 55 years to get there. She couldn’t believe it when she won.
“It was a real sense of shock. It was a joy and excitement. I just thought, ‘Oh, I guess I’m still in the game.’ It was like that. I had diminished my own personal thoughts about what was going on, and I was in despair or depression about who I was and what my relevance was. I heard my name. What?! Oh, my God. I felt this super energy. This was a blessing. This electric bolt of lightning that came through me, and I’m like, ‘Wow, thank you.’”
Saturday’s benefit is being held to raise money for her 19th century church in Chatham. And she decided to invite the Heavenly Echoes to join her because of the energy they impart. “We were putting together our blast the other day, and we looked at a couple of their videos on YouTube, and I just clicked on it, and it opened up and started singing, and my hair stood on end, and my whole body was rocked with this electrical energy, and I jumped up and I go, ‘Yes. Cool!’”
In 2015 Rory Block and her husband/engineer Rob Davis purchased the Old Methodist Church in Chatham Center. Since that time they have been restoring and personally funding the building. It has been Block’s dream to keep the doors open for events and services, cultural, educational and spiritual- concerts, workshops, exhibits and gatherings that benefit the community. All the proceeds of this concert will go to paying expenses of the building. The program begins at 7:30 p.m. at ChurchLIVE, 8 Church Lane, Chatham Center, New York. Tickets are $20, available at the door or online, donations accepted.