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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1348

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Rory Block: Last Fair Deal
by George Graham

(Telarc 83593 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/10/2003)

Since the advent of electric blues in the Chicago style in the 1940s and Fifties, and given the genre's considerable influence on rock, most people's impression of the blues is that it requires an electric guitar to be played. But there has been a gradual reawakening in acoustic blues in recent years, even though some what could be called "second-generation" performers have been doing the style for decades. Others, such as Taj Mahal, John Hammond and Roy Rogers go back and forth easily between acoustic and electric blues.

This week, we have a new recording by a veteran acoustic blues woman, who has also had a career in more pop-oriented music. Rory Block has just released a new CD called Last Fair Deal, and it's her most straight-out acoustic blues release in quite a few years. It's also almost entirely a solo recording, and one on which she stresses her guitar work.

Rory Block's move into folk and blues was a direct result of her unique circumstances growing up. She was the daughter of Adam Block, who ran a shoe store in Greenwich Village, which sold sandals popular among the folk singers of the 1960s. Block's shoe shop became a hangout for people like Bob Dylan, Maria Muldaur and John Sebastian. Young Aurora, or Rory took in the music, and was soon learning guitar from the likes of blues great Rev. Gary Davis, and became friends with the Son House, who was an associate and some would say mentor of Robert Johnson.

After her parents' marriage broke up, Ms. Block decided to drop out of school at 15 and headed off with some friends to California, but not before numerous detours to blues country. She eventually made an instructional record called How to Play Blues Guitar in the mid 1960s under the name Sunshine Kate. After some time off to start a family, she resumed her musical career, though ended up making some pop records in the 1970s that were more influenced by disco than by the blues.

By the early 1980s, she began a long association with Rounder Records, the Massachusetts-based folk label, and explored various facets of the blues, along with showing her side as a singer-songwriter. Over the years, she has won a number of awards, including a four W.C. Handy awards for acoustic and traditional blues. But she also continued to be a songstress from time to time on her recordings, with some more produced tracks sharing her records along with her trademark acoustic blues.

Her new CD, Last Fair Deal sees her move to Telarc Records, the mainly classical label which has also released blues. Ms. Block writes in her liner notes that for this recording, she really sat down and practiced her guitar, joking that it was the first time she had really seriously practiced her technique since 1964. The result is some impressive guitar work, in a recording that very much stresses that. Her Martin six-string acoustic guitar is the sole accompaniment, except for an a cappella track. There is some overdubbing on a few tracks, but the sound is largely pure basic, unadulterated acoustic Delta-style blues that Ms. Block can deliver with a degree of authority that comes from playing the music for close to 40 years.

The material is about evenly divided between original music in the classic style, and traditional or standard pieces by Robert Johnson and Son House. There are also two largely improvised instrumentals among the fourteen tracks on the CD.

Last Fair Deal starts with an original song, Gone Again, which Ms. Block said started out as an instrumental. The lyrics were inspired by a new motorcycle her producer Rob Davis had just gotten and was anxious to show off. <<>>

The first of the old blues tunes Ms. Block does is County Farm Blues, by Son House. Though Ms. Block had spent time with House in 1965, she writes in her liner notes that 2003 was the first time she had heard this song, in a 1942 recording made by folklorist Alan Lomax. She comments on House's guitar style being distinctive from that of Robert Johnson, whom House was said to have taught. Ms. Block maintains the classic Delta style. <<>>

The title track, Last Fair Deal Gone Down is a classic by Robert Johnson himself, which Ms. Block also performs in the traditional style, with the exception of the overdubbed lead slide guitar parts. <<>>

One of the departures on the CD is the original composition Cry Out Loud, a song which Ms. Block said she wrote many years ago and forgot about until she was rummaging through some old cassettes. She said it was a discovery process trying to re-learn the song. The piece is given a kind of Gospel influence through the multiple backing vocals that Ms. Block overdubbed in the studio. <<>>

The first of the two guitar instrumentals is a distinctive and bluesy performance of Amazing Grace, which Ms. Block played in an odd guitar tuning she stumbled on, and said she probably would not be able to duplicate again. The track highlights her resourcefulness on the instrument, especially given that this was an improvised performance that was captured because the tape happened to be running. <<>>

Also in the classic, authentic Delta tradition is the other Robert Johnson song, Traveling Riverside Blues. It's a reminder of Ms. Block's skill at capturing the essence of the style, and of her outstanding guitar work. <<>>

One of the more distinctive songs, in terms of its lyrical subject matter, is Mama's Stray Baby, about a stray puppy that Ms. Block rescued on a winter night. Unlike many blues songs, this one has a happy ending. <<>>

There has always been a tenuous connection between rural blues and Gospel music. Ms. Block does an old traditional song called Hallelu Hallelu, that she performs a cappella with the help of a good deal of overdubbing. She sings all the parts, except for the bass, sung by Rob Davis. <<>>

About the only track that does not work so well is the original song called Two Places at a Table, inspired by the loss suffered by a friend whose wife had died. It's a nice song lyrically with some excellent guitar work, but stylistically the song does not fit so well with the rest of the CD. <<>>

Rory Block, like John Hammond, is a artist who came from a relatively privileged background, growing up in New York, but surrounded by the music of the some of the original performers. In nearly 40 years of playing the blues, Ms. Block has become one most respected figures among blues revivalists, while maintaining a somewhat multifaceted career musically. Hew new release Last Fair Deal is her most blues-focussed recording in the better part of a decade, and her first all-solo recording in a long time as well. Though she does succumb to the temptation to take advantage of the overdubbing capabilities of the studio, she makes it all sound very authentic. The result is a satisfying recording that takes classic Delta style blues to some interesting places.

We'll give the CD a sound quality grade of A-minus. The acoustic guitar is captured well, and though there are some electronic effects added to the guitar, it's all quite tasteful and helps to provide a variety of sounds, especially given that Ms. Block used the same guitar for all of the songs. The dynamic range is decent, but not exemplary.

Fair, slender and often downright glamorous in appearance, Rory Block hardly looks the part of the authentic Delta blues artist. But her new CD leaves no doubt that she is among the best of the revivialists in the style. And the solo setting of this recording makes it all the more impressive.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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