By definition, blues revivalists preserve ways of playing that have fallen out of popular favor; paradoxically, for their efforts they’re often accused of turning the music into a lifeless museum piece. But even the stodgiest purist would hesitate to level that charge at Rory Block: she inhabits her material with an obsessive commitment, whether picking lacy Piedmont-style filigrees or beating on the body of her guitar and popping the bass strings against its neck like a Delta bluesman of the 30s. And though she can re-create the masters’ guitar lines with spellbinding fidelity, sometimes note for note, she’s far from a rote copyist: on her latest CD, the 1998 Confessions of a Blues Singer (Rounder), she’s more like a classical pianist interpreting Beethoven’s sonatas. Where Charlie Patton roared out “Bo Weavil Blues” with the choked fury of a sharecropper watching pests destroy his cotton field, she sings it with a clear tone, as if she can see a better season down the line. And on Blind Willie McTell’s restless, wistful “Statesboro Blues,” she adds a steely determination with her constricted voice and crisp phrasing–McTell sounds helplessly driven by his passions, but she’s definitely in charge of hers. As a songwriter Block sticks to her own persona, infusing shimmering country folk with stark autobiography; on “Life Song,” the album’s closer, she sings, “My mother didn’t want me, she told me not to stay / My father was the same you know, they drove their child away.” Despite this fearlessness in facing down her demons, though, she seems to have a hard time with the ugliness in some of the songs she covers: I’ve heard her change the lyrics of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues” onstage, for instance (Johnson: “Goin’ to beat my woman until I’m satisfied”; Block: “Goin’ to love my baby…”), and on the CD she does something similar to his tune “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” She may simply have been trying to sing in the right gender, but these changes feel like bowdlerizations to me–especially considering how expertly Block evokes the sense of impending doom in Johnson’s guitar style, softly picking a bass line like distant thunder and then using her slide to tear into a ghostly scream. Friday, March 16, 7:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Shonna Valeska.