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.