Lady Sings the Blues
Rory Block lived the first year of her life in a cabin in Neshanic, New Jersey, with no plumbing, a well outside, and an outhouse. After moving to New York City as a toddler, she left home at age 15 to start a life on the road, playing guitar from town to town. During her first years of gigging as a professional musician, her tour bus was a beat-up, Ford Pinto station wagon that broke down more often than it ran. Damn right she's got the blues.
While musicians such as Eric Clapton have recently brought the spotlight to acoustic blues with unplugged albums, Block has been keeping alive the Delta blues tradition of Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, and all their contemporaries for more than 25 years, since her first album, I'm in Love, was released in 1975. It's easy to see where Block's influences lie -- she's covered nearly every song in Robert Johnson's oeuvre. But on her new album, I'm Every Woman, the 52-year-old blueswoman takes a sharp left turn.
"Mixed in there is Motown remakes of some of my favorite, favorite stuff such as Teddy Pendergrass's "Love TKO,' Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone,' and Keb' Mo' and I did a duet of "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing,'" Block says. "I'm gonna have big fun with this album."
Despite Block's playing this off as just a fun time, the album marks a major departure when compared with the rest of her career. Block has received heaps of awards, including four W.C. Handy Awards, two for acoustic blues album of the year and two for traditional female artist of the year, all for dedicating herself almost reverently to early blues music. Her recordings are split about 50/50 between albums of original material and those on which she records the works of the masters. She sees the new direction of I'm Every Woman in a familiar light, however.
"I didn't try to come up with something new and trendy," Block says. "I thought, well, we'll stick pretty much with the beautiful arrangement concept that was already there and I'll just sing the best I can, not unlike the way I would approach a Robert Johnson song. Not an exact remake where there's no different character to the song."
Still, her Johnson recordings are certainly more true to the man himself than a few of the Motown covers, particularly the title song. When Chaka Khan recorded "I'm Every Woman," she probably didn't envision replacing the bass with acoustic slide guitar. But with a hand as deft as Block's, the additions work. Audiences can judge for themselves when the blueswoman arrives at the Bamboo Room this Sunday, a time Block looks forward to just as much as any fan.
"The audiences have really saved my life more times than I can tell you," she says. "They say these beautiful things to me every night. I'm grateful that I do what I love and get paid for it, that this is my living. I'm just grateful that I can do it -- through good times, through hard times, I can still do what I love and people come out to see me. That's a gift beyond belief. To that extent, I owe everything to the audiences."
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