Rory Block
@ The Cedar Cultural Center, February 1, 1997

When Rory Block comes to town you are always guaranteed a first rate night of great acoustic country blues by one of today's premier blues singers. Born and raised in New York's Greenwich Village, Rory Block was exposed to the vibrant folk music scene during the early sixties and began playing guitar at a very young age (taking classical guitar lessons at first). While she was a teenager she heard the blues and fell in love with the music (sounds familiar). She also had some of the best teachers at the time with blues greats like the Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and her mentor Son House.

The majority of her songs are straightforward, traditional Delta acoustic blues but she also has some very nice topical songs, still done in the traditional style. During the 1980's Rory was one of the key artists responsible for bringing this traditional acoustic blues to the attention of a wider audience. Today she continues that acoustic blues tradition and as Taj Mahal says, "She is very simply the best there is."

Things were a little late in getting started at this show because of car trouble on the way from a show at Buddy Guy's Legends the previous night. Their van broke down outside Madison and luckily there was an all night truck stop that was able to begin work on the vehicle at 4 in the morning. Rory went on ahead and was able to start her acoustic set nearly on time. You could tell she was a little anxious about her husband and son who were following in the van...they arrived sometime during the first set, to her relief and had to load the drums on stage during the break for her second set with the band.

Rory has a very engaging stage presence and did something that I felt added to the enjoyment of the performance. She introduced each song with a short story or explanation that was helpful considering many of her songs have some specific meaning or story behind them. Rory is also a very emphatic and energetic performer -- with her leg stomping on the wood floor and her body swaying back and forth. She attacks her guitar with a fierce hand slap and bass string snapping and has a driving rhythm that's fun to watch. I'm amazed she didn't break any strings! With over 16 albums to her credit she covered a lot of territory in her song selection that night, doing songs from many of those releases.

The first set was solo acoustic with a mixture of traditional country blues and some of Rory's more contemporary songs. She opened with an old Rev. Robert Wilkins song, No Way For Me To Get Along (I think was the title). She said she hadn't played it in a long time, but it sure sounded good to me. Next was the instrumental Gone Woman Blues from her 1996 release Tornado. This song was dedicated to Nicole Brown and featured some nice slide work. The song also featured her hard driving rhythms, finger snapping and high energy foot pounding on the wooden stage floor. She said "sometimes the music says more without words." A little later in the show she said "words can be as powerful as a shotgun" as she introduced the song Like a Shotgun, also from Tornado. Rory has an excellent ability to paint vivid mental pictures with her songs.

Joliet Blues followed (from When A Woman Gets the Blues) and featured her nice alternating bass finger picking style. She did Maggie Campbell, from the Ain't I A Woman album and told the story of the first time she did this song on stage as a 15 year old. She was supposed to do an instrumental, but somehow opened her mouth and just started singing the song she was in shock! She then played some more down and dirty slide guitar on Robert Johnson's Terraplane Blues from the Mamas' Blues CD. She sang acappella on the song Gentle Kindness that she dedicated to a close friend who had lost her 21 year old son.

She displayed some dry humor at this point when she said she was getting some funny frequencies from her guitar -- "called flat." She said she might have to use a tuner after all. When she did the J. E. Martin song You Deserve the Best from Angle of Mercy, she said she recently found out she had been playing it wrong all this time. She recently started playing the song with her band and was told she was going to have to relearn it the correct way, so this was probably the last time she would get to play it incorrectly!

She finished out the set with three more songs including, Rolling Along and Mama's Blues. This last song she introduced as a special blues song for women. She talked about how beauty is really about your heart, but that it is easy to lose your perspective with all the media hype out there.

After the drums were set up during the break, the second set got started featuring her band: Mike DeMicco on guitar, Rob Leon on bass, Peter O'Brien on drums and son Jordan Valdina on Piano.

Some of the highlights during the second set included It Ain't Right, about which she said started out with just a song title and then became an instrumental...and then (with a smile) she said she realized she could write about anything she wanted. The haunting Silver Wings was dedicated to Wendy, a very wise friend who died of breast cancer. This song had a nice drum introduction and was a joy to listen to.

Rory did a Koko Taylor song, Cried Like A Baby, with an engaging piano introduction by Jordan. She sang the song with a very soulful voice where she went waaaaaay down in the basement for this one (what Koko says on stage). She finished out the set with Lovin' Whiskey (a song from a letter from long ago). I'll Be Gone, a song about getting away from the phone. You've Got To Shine when nobody loves you, from Mama's Blues. And Indian Ernie, a beautiful song about a conductor she met on a train (from the Tornado album).

We don't get to hear enough good traditional acoustic blues like this, especially in a smoke free environment with a good sound system like the Cedar has. Hope she comes back soon! By the way, you can catch the Holmes Brothers at the Cedar on April 11th.

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Copyright © 1997 by Ray M. Stiles
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