With so many women blues singers patterning themselves after Bessie Smith or Koko Taylor, Rory Block is one of the rare ones in modern times (aside from the late Jo-Ann Kelly) who is more inspired by the bluesmen of pre-War blues, like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and former mentor Mississippi John Hurt. And with her supple acoustic guitar skills, I think of her more as a present-day Memphis Minnie.
Rory has admired and played the music of Johnson for so long that recording an album devoted to his songs seemed to be a logical thing to do. Anyone who has followed Block's career even casually knew that she would not let down her fans for this project, and she doesn't. Being the complete student of R.J. that she is, Rory even managed to track down and visit Johnson's family in Mississippi before tackling the project of her career, just to make absolutely sure she will have captured the essence of the famous ancestor.
Aside from a choir intro the opens "Cross Road Blues," it's just Rory and her guitar. She nails the vocal, adding the passion and ad-libs in just the right spots, as tunes like "Terraplane Blues" amply demonstrate. Her outstanding slide work finds a comfortable home in this music, like the instrumental ending in "32-20 Blues." Block's treatment on "Rambling On My Mind" subtly shows the connection between Johnson's blues and the rock-n-roll that wasn't to appear until almost twenty years later; in doing so she uses this record to provide not only a history lesson on her idol but 20th century American music in the broader sense.
There are other Johnson tributes out there; those major British blues guitarists Eric Clapton and Peter Green have both recently put out some solid ones by interpreting Robert Johnson's music in a more electrified or modern setting. Rory Block takes on the greater challenge of tackling the material in the way Robert Johnson himself most likely intended and comes out with a big winner. Fans of country blues and Block have much to cheer about with this release.
NOTE: It would be unjust if I didn't point you to the earlier and far superior review of this record provided by the illustrious Carl Abernathy at Cahl's Juke Joint (a great blog to visit if you dig blues, rock and jazz). See what Mr. Abernathy has to say about The Lady And Mr. Johnson.
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