Photos by Sergio Kurhajec
Six years ago, Rory Block undertook an ambitious project she dubbed the Mentor Series that was instigated with the release of The Lady And Mr. Johnson, a Robert Johnson tribute record that more than any in recent memory, captured the true spirit of its subject. That’s because Block did her research, and truth be told, she prepared for it with her entire career. But as this was just the first chapter in the series, she didn’t stop there. She followed up by paying homage to another inspiration Son House (Blues Walkin’ Like a Man: A Tribute To Son House (2008)) and then on to Shake ‘Em on Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell (2011). Now comes her laudation of the gospel-drenched blues of Rev. Gary Davis, who like McDowell, Block has met many years ago, and who ended up having an immeasurable impact upon her own method of acoustic blues.
In Davis’ time, Southern blues troubadours liberally went back and forth between the secular blues and spirituals; Davis was one of the few who, since the late 30′s, stuck with spirituals exclusively, and even fewer of such bluesman who became a household name in the world of blues. His music was so powerful that to many, that was the main message, not the Biblical references.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Get the lowdown on Hundred Dollar Valentine, the latest album by another acoustic blues master, Chris Smither.]
It’s that healing power of Davis’ music that Block transmits on I Belong To The Band: A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis. Like Johnson, House and McDowell, she channels her subject like as if she was his daughter, but a daughter whose personality is too strong not to flavor the interpretations. Take the lead-off song “Samson & Delilah,” to choose an example: Davis raises his voice at the end of some lines to put on an exclamation point, but Block goes into a falsetto shout that displays her own brand of spunk and sass. And she plays her 12-string guitar in a more straight-up blues style in contrast to Davis’ ragtime style; both play the acoustic guitar superbly, just differently.
Block overdubs herself on vocals and sometimes her trusty Martin guitar, but those are the only concessions made to technology that deviate from Rev. Davis’ down-home approach of his own recordings. The virtual choir she creates on “I Belong To Band” resonates with the inspiration of a Wednesday night revival. She adds an acoustic slide to bolster “Twelve Gates To The Gates,” and it’s even more prominent on “Let Us Get Together Right Down Here.” More than any of her singing and playing skills, Block puts an emphasis on the emotional factor that make Davis’ songs so compelling; she invests an evangelical fervor into straight-from-the pulpit preaching of “Pure Religion.”
It’s easy to get spoiled with a record like I Belong To The Band, after Rory Block had already made three solid tribute albums before this one. Spanning her 37-year recording career, though, you’d find that she’s made plenty of good blues records but the Mentor Series has raised her game to heights only attained by the very best in the business. It took a great blueswoman to make such inspiring appreciations of the music of the great bluesmen.