Happy Saturday, all—& a happy holiday weekend to readers here in the States. As regular readers know, I drove up to Eureka, Montana on Wednesday to see Rory Block perform, & I wanted to share some thoughts & impressions about her performance.
I’ve written about Ms Block in the past on Robert Frost’s Banjo, & it would be accurate to say that I’ve been a great admirer of her work for a number of years; however, in all that time I had never seen her perform live. Eureka, MT is about a 10-hour drive from Indian Valley, but I can assure you, it was worth it!
Actually, I didn’t know what to expect of the venue, which was Lincoln County High School auditorium—but I was pleasantly surprised to find a room with plush theater seats & good, warm acoustics. An audience of roughly 150 people didn’t fill the room, but made a respectable showing; & after all, Eureka is a town of only 1,000 plus folks, with the closest thing to a city, Kalispell, being an hour south.
Rory Block began her set with an impassioned version of Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” then moved to an equally fervent cover of Son House’s “Death Letter Blues.” Words like “fervent” are not an exaggeration—Rory Block's guitar playing & singing are passionate, while at the same time displaying a virtuosic skill & technique. One thing that becomes immediately apparent is her uncanny sense of rhythm—the old Delta blues was dance music, & Ms Block’s playing brings that out, especially with the many percussive effects she renders along with her masterful fingerpicking & slide playing. She snaps strings; she beats on the guitar’s soundboard; she uses a heavy damping technique; & all along, she’s stamping out a rhythm with her foot—it’s a powerful & moving display. But the blues is first & foremost a vocal music, & Rory Block is perhaps the most gifted singer I have ever heard live. Her voice often falls in a rich lower range, yet she’s able to employ a clear & strong high range as well: almost the equivalent of a male falsetto, but more full. Obviously, this works extremely well with her material, as many of the great Mississippi blues players were known for their falsetto singing: Robert Johnson, Skip James & Tommy Johnson, just to name a few.
Ms Block performed a 2-hour set of old blues, originals & even a few country tunes, including a remarkable a cappella performance of the old country gospel tune “Daniel Prayed.” At one point, she discussed the long-held distinction between blues as “the devil’s music” & gospel. She observed that for her, there was a continuum—they’re both “spirit music.” Anyone listening to her performance would be convinced that this is true for her; she seems to put her whole being into each song. Yet her performance is never frenetic—she has to be one of the most physically relaxed musicians I’ve ever seen, even when she’s playing at lightning speed or singing an ardent passage.
I’d also have to say that Ms Block is an engaging presence; she interspersed various stories & observations in a relaxed & open manner—funny, moving & sometimes simply “right on.” She also seems very open to her fans & audience—she manned the cd table along with her husband, & talked with folks about how they were learning from her instructional dvds or how they felt about her music & the concert. I got a chance to meet her myself, as well as a signed concert dvd, & this was a great topper to a wonderful evening.
Ms Block was brought to little Eureka, MT by an organization called the Sunburst
Foundation. The group certainly should be applauded for bringing a performer of this stature to a rural western community, just as Rory Block should be applauded for bringing her music to this venue.
I’ve included two videos because I couldn’t settle on one! The first, “Cross Road Blues” is Rory Block inhabiting a Robert Johnson song; the second, “Lovin’ Whiskey” is one of her original compositions. She performed “Lovin’ Whiskey” on Wednesday & told the story behind its composition. I’d always assumed it was based on a true story, & that is indeed the case. It’s such a moving & “real” song.
“Real”—that may be the best way to sum up Rory Block’s music. Hope you enjoy the videos, & if you ever get the chance to see her perform live, please do!