Tribute recordings can be a risky business, but you can feel absolutely confident in getting any one of Rory Block’s tremendous tributes to her blues influences. She’s already done Robert Johnson, Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Rev. Gary Davis, and they were all first-rate recordings, but Avalon: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt is quite possibly the best of the series.
Not only does Block do an excellent job of singing Hurt’s distinctive lyrics and capturing his inimitable style, her guitar picking is just amazing, on a par with Hurt’s original playing.
Block starts the album with an original song, “Everybody Loves John,” about Mississippi John Hurt with biographical details and the story of how she met him in 1963. It’s amazing how much information she can put into a song without losing its lilting quality. She then follows with Hurt’s own tribute to his hometown, “Avalon.”
But the album really catches fire with “Candy Man” and some truly mesmerizing finger picking. Then amazing picking and great slide are combined on “Frankie and Albert,” a lesser-known version of “Frankie and Johnny” which is also perfectly suited to Block’s expressive voice.
The mood turns more solemn for “Got The Blues Can’t Be Satisfied,” before returning to some great storytelling in the sad tale of “Louis Collins.” Block’s spoken commentary works just as effectively here as it did for Hurt, adding a very personal touch.
Things brighten back up for the great “walking blues,” “Richland Woman Blues.” Then come a couple of traditional songs that Hurt did definitive versions of. “Spike Driver Blues” takes its plot from the folk singer John Henry and adds a sequel to that story. It does not sound even slightly ludicrous to hear Block do a song like this with its macho message, or the next song, the traditional “Stagolee.” That’s how good she is. There are so many versions of “Stagolee,” but this is one of the very best.
“Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” is one of this reviewer’s all-time favorite songs by Hurt or any other blues singer, and a favorite on this album. It’s a great song and captures the pure essence of the blues lifestyle, and Block could not possibly do a better job than she does here.
The set ends with “Payday,” and Block captures the sly humor and joyous feeling of that song perfectly. It’s an excellent ending to a phenomenal blues recording.
Block is quite simply the best female interpreter of traditional blues of our time and a fine songwriter as well, as shone by her original tributes to these masters on each series entry. Listen to her guitar playing here and you will likely agree that she is also one of the best pickers in the business today as well. Blues fans owe it to themselves to add this recording (and the others in the “Mentor Series” from Stony Plain Records) to their collections.