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Music Review: Rory Block – Shake ‘Em On Down

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Any new release by Rory Block is like a breath of fresh air or, to be more precise, a fresh breeze from the southern Delta — the original home of American Blues.

Aurora Block was a child of the sixties and the Greenwich Village folk scene. Leaving home as a teenager, she traveled to California and began playing the club and coffeehouse circuit. She also immersed herself in the Delta Blues, setting out to meet and play with some of her heroes, including Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Bukka White, Reverend Gary Davis, and Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Now four decades into her career, she is recognized as one of the premier female blues artists in the United States. She has won five prestigious W.C. Handy Awards or Blues Music Awards as they were re-named in 2006. She has also won twice for Traditional Blues Female Artist and three times for Acoustic Blues Album Of The Year.

She has now returned with what I think is her 30th album. Lately she has been issuing tributes to her old Delta Blues idols. Albums dedicated to Robert Johnson and Son House have now been followed by Shake ‘Em On Down, which is a tribute to her old mentor Mississippi Fred McDowell.

It is both a traditional and non-traditional tribute album. She covers seven of McDowell’s well-known songs but also includes four original compositions which channel his style and praise him as a musician, as well as one autobiographical song that talks about her encounter with him while she was a teenager. The last track is a rollicking cover of the old Sonny Boy Williamson classic, “Good Morning Little School Girl.”

The best of the McDowell tracks is “What’s The Matter Now,” which is perfect for her guitar style and voice. She’s added a second guitar part which fill in the gaps nicely. Also of note is the title song, which is one of those smoldering and sexual Delta Blues tunes which were prevalent back in the early 20th century. “Kokomo Blues” is just an effortless cover of the early blues at its best.

The albums best track, though, is her autobiographical “Mississippi Man.” It deals with her encounter with McDowell as a 15-year old and whets the appetite for more. She mentions in the liner notes that the full story is contained in her autobiography, which I have got to check out. She also presents a great story in the traditional style of the Delta Blues. The album’s first track is her “Steady Freddy,” which contains excellent examples of her acoustic and slide guitar prowess.

The album is presented in the spirit of Block’s love for the Delta Blues. She strips the sound back to basics as she plays all the guitar parts and provides all the vocals. The only variance is her playing both guitar parts, which is a nod to modern technology.

Shake ‘Em On Down is the latest in a long line of superior blues releases by Rory Block. She continues to invite her listeners back to visit the origins of the blues and it is a journey worth sharing with her.

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