Rory Block sings and plays the country blues like an Oklahoma whirlwind kicks up the dust. She’s a force of nature that needs to be reckoned with. Block doesn’t just strum the guitar, she slashes at the strings with one hand like she’s like she’s chopping firewood while the other goes up and down the neck like she’s strangling a chicken. Except that description suggests she’s not in control, and Block always serves as the guitar’s boss. The New York City child (born in Princeton, N.J., raised in Greenwich Village) learned how to play firsthand from some of the old masters, such as Rev. Gary Davis, Son House, and Mississippi John Hurt. Block’s raw and raspy voice suggests a lifetime of experience, and indeed she’s been singing and playing the blues for more than 30 years.
The first 13 cuts on From the Dust feature Block making a lot of noise all by herself. She provides all guitar and vocals, although she does overdub and multi-track her voice and instrumentals. Although the acoustic tunes range in dynamic character, they all share an intensity of delivery. That doesn’t mean the songs are always serious. While she does sing about death on “One Way Down” and “The Gate”, Block shows off her lighter side on the goofy “Big as Texas”, which concerns a road trip home that seems to take forever, and the shaggy dog tale of conmen and deals gone wrong, “Fargo Baby” (“By the way, good luck running down the street in your underwear / Hey, isn’t that a dream somebody had?”).
Speaking of dogs, Block admits she is obsessed by them. On the liner notes she dedicates the disc to dogs, not just her four pets, but to all dogs everywhere. “If I had the means, I’d have every lost and unwanted dog on Earth rescued and showered with love,” she writes. “Maybe someday it will be my privilege to help on a larger scale with land and resources required to make a difference.” Block’s song “Runaway Dog” has her singing lines every dog owner says to his/her pet, while her ringing guitar licks expresses her love for the animals.
Block penned all of the tunes, with the exception of a four-song suite of Delta Blues found smack dab in the middle of the disc. Her versions of Charley Patton’s “Highwater Everywhere”, Muddy Waters’ “I Be Bound”, Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway”, and Son House’s “Dry Spell Blues” reveal Block’s deep connections to the blues tradition. Unlike, say, Eric Clapton’s dry note-for-note renditions of past classics, Block makes them sound fresh and new by putting them in her own voice. She makes these tunes a part of her as much as the air she breathes and the water she drinks, and they come out just as naturally.
“David Had the Blues” is the disc’s most engaging tune lyrically. Block’s take on the psalms as blues numbers seems right on the mark and suggests that she sees her compositions as a sort of prayer. She frequently employs Biblical imagery in her music, especially on the six minute long “Remember”, which reveals the close and profoundly rooted connections between the blues and spirituals. She sings about the loss of her son, recalls how others have suffered even worse tragedies, and that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that we may be saved.” Block sermonizes as if she’s a street corner preacher, like the Reverend Davis from who she learned. Her robust guitar playing helps turn her invocations into art.
The last cut, “Unprecedented Quiet”, is the only non-blues tune on the disc and the only instrumental track. As the title suggests, the song is peaceful, but quiet is too strong a word to describe it. The song is as noisy as a babbling brook, with guitar notes plucked out of the air while a melodic line flows in the background.
From the Dust reaffirms Block’s status as today’s best country blues player. She has already won multiple W.C. Handy Awards for her previous efforts. The country blues as a distinctive musical style has been around for about 100 years, and Block keeps the musical genre alive and vital in the 21st century. She kicks off the dust and takes it out of the realm of old 78 rpm records as she incorporates it into the soul of her being.
// Notes from the Road
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