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Rory Block – I Belong To The Band/A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis

Stony Plain Records

11 tracks; 49:25 minutes

The Reverend Gary Davis (1896-1972), also known as Blind Gary Davis because he was blind since infancy, was a Christian convert turned Baptist minister. In the 1930s, he became known for his Gospel-based “Country Blues” music and distinctive guitar style – which involved finger-picking, using only his thumb and index finger. He was rediscovered during the 1950s-1960s folk music revival, and in 1964, a teenage girl visited Rev. Davis’ home. She was accompanying her friend, Stefan Grossman, who was then taking guitar lessons from the Reverend. That girl was Aurora (Rory) Block; and now, 40 years later, she has released a CD of Reverend Davis’ songs called I Belong To The Band/A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis.

This CD is the third in Block’s “Mentor Series” – a collection of albums that pay homage to important bluesmen she has encountered in her life. The first in this series was Blues Walkin’ Like a Man/A Tribute to Son House, and the second was Shake ‘Em On Down/A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell. In 1997, she had also launched a tribute album of Robert Johnson covers (though he died before Block was born), called The Lady and Mr. Johnson, which won an award for Acoustic Album of the Year.

I Belong To The Band features 11 songs written or arranged by Rev. Davis, and Block worked hard to recreate Davis’ style as accurately as possible, with her intricate finger-picking and slide playing. Block performed all the guitar tracks and vocals herself, and although the general Country Blues style is consistent throughout this release, each cut has its own unique sound.

I felt that the first cut, “Sampson & Delilah,” had the most unusual sound of any on the CD. Each chorus ends with a repeated riff (and sometimes a hoot) that sounds like it would normally come at the end of a song. Just for comparison, you might want to check out Peter, Paul & Mary’s version of this song on YouTube, called “If I Had My Way.”

The fact that Block supplied all the voice tracks on this album accounts for a seamless choral blend that adds a lot of beauty and interest to the songs - sometimes sounding like an angel chorus, other times including hoots, yells or spoken segments. In several of these tracks (for example, Cut 3, “Let Us Get Together Right Down Here”), Block drops her voice down into a somewhat male vocal range, resulting in a haunting sound, almost like she is channeling the spirit of her subject…copying things like diction, accent, and phrasing, as closely as possible.

One of my favorite songs on this CD would be the last track, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” The style of this song is perhaps the most similar to that of modern blues music, with it’s dark sound and lyrics that carry some universal truths about a force that’s been giving people the blues since the dawn of time…Death.

The subject matter of all these songs is religion, and they would have traditionally served to teach biblical stories, verses, and principles, while building camaraderie among the faithful. The messages are simple, and the faith expressed in these songs is based on the promise of a better life in Heaven. Despite whatever kind of hell people might be going through here on Earth, the faithful are a thankful band, and Block liberally seasons her performance with heartfelt exclamations of “Thank you, Lord!” and “Praise God Almighty!”

According to Block’s life story on her website, Son House wondered, “Where did she learn to play like that?” However, it never really occurred to her that it might be unusual for a young Caucasian girl to play the County Blues, which had primarily been performed by African American males. She only knew that she loved the music, and wanted to make it her life’s mission to preserve it. While I cannot guarantee that you will like Block’s performance of these songs on I Belong To The Band, I do believe that we owe Rory Block our respect and admiration for dedicating her considerable talent and hard work to the preservation of this priceless bit of musical history.

Reviewer Sheila Skilling is a self-professed “blues fan by marriage,” who was hooked by her husband’s musical preferences, but reeled in by the live performances of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy and others. She lives in the Minneapolis area.

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