12 strings with voice
The once precocious baby boomer blues guitarist from Greenwich Village, Rory Block has gotten old. No, I don’t mean age-wise. She’s always sounded older than her years. I mean old as in rehashing the past masters from the previous generation. I guess if Rod Stewart can generate millions singing the great American songbook there is no reason Block should not earn a living performing the repertoire of the great American bluesmen. This is the fourth new CD in her “Mentor” series, celebrating the blues masters she knew personally and those who influenced her work. The previous tribute discs were to Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Robert Johnson. This one is to Rev. Gary Davis. Sure, Block’s guitar work is first-rate. She captures the spirit and finesse of those other artists, and this salute is top-notch, instrumentally. She plays all 12 strings of her acoustic instrument with great gusto and emotion.
Vocally, Block has a distinctive growly style. She does not try to imitate Davis’ vocalizations. The songs sound like what they are. Block recreates Davis’ best-known material in a somewhat sanitized environment: a recording studio. This should be music of the streets and of the church and be sung in a social milieu. There is too much attention in the mix to Block’s singing, including what seems to be multi-tracking of the vocals.
The songs themselves are wonderful. Davis’ genius cannot be overstated. His recordings are readily available and other artists have made his work popular, such as the Grateful Dead (“Samson and Delilah”), Joan Baez (“12 Gates to the City”), Hot Tuna (“I Am the Light of this World”) and many others. Not surprisingly, Davis’ renditions are not as awesome as the classic covers, but she does hold her own.
The best songs are those that let Block loose on the guitar. While Davis was a gospel artist and these works were meant to spread religion, his songs frequently operated as secular blues. The urgency was directed towards the lord rather than to say a woman or sinning, but the procreate urge was there. Hence an innocent dirge like “Let Us Get Together Right Down Here” has an edge to it that Block subtly conveys by changing the pace of her tempos and letting the strings wander away from the vocals. The wholesome vibe is inherently unwholesome in a good way.
Presumably, Davis never played a song the same way twice, and so Block’s re-creations should have a less than archival vibe. But they do seem a bit too pristine for their own good. The fact that everything is perfect is not always positive. However, everything is perfect is not necessarily bad either. For those put off by scratchy old recordings of the past, Block’s album will provide a useful entry into the music of a past master.
So this is a good album. It’s not a great one. To do that Block needs to go back to writing original songs and put them in the mix. One can think of I Belong to the Band as one of those coffee table art books. Sure, the reproductions have good color resolution. The text can be very informative. But when all is said and done, you can put the book back on the table. Nothing has changed.