New York blues: Rory Block’s ‘Prove It on Me’ electrifies

Thirty-six albums down the line now, and Rory Block’s singing and playing the blues better than ever. “Prove it on Me” proves that 10 times over.
Photo by Sergio Kurhajec

Consider small town, upstate New Yorker Rory Block among the country blues greats. Having spent 57 of her 70 years in total devotion to the craft, she’s earned the honor. Imbued with the blues in more ways than one while growing up in Manhattan in the 1950s and ’60s, Aurora Block became a student, and a seeker, before most of us saw the good end of adolescence. She studied guitar with now-fellow stylist Stefan Grossman, and befriended such then-rediscovered icons as Son House, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt.

By the mid-1970s, Rory Block was on her own beautifully distinct path, a path on which she’s always drawn attention to those who blazed it before her. Thirty-six albums down the line now, and she’s singing and playing the blues better than ever. “Prove it on Me” proves that 10 times over. With these striking songs, Block salutes a variety of the women who’ve inspired her. A few names are recognizable, such as Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie. But this eighth album in her “Mentor Series,” and the second in what she refers to as her “Power Women of the Blues” segment of it, shines a beaming light on several that might otherwise have been completely forgotten.

The album is largely acoustic in delivery, but absolutely electrifying in receipt. Block plays everything, all the fretted and slide guitars, the bass by way of guitar, and the percussion, calling herself “The Rory Block Band” in the liner notes. You’d never know it, the whole of it sounds so natural. In potent voice, through resounding guitar, and with strong heart, Rory Block opens the album with “He May Be Your Man,” by Helen Humes. Humes sang the blues upbeat with the Count Basie Orchestra, replacing Billie Holiday in that role in 1938. Block’s way with this cheatin’ blues has the feel of old authenticity, cut with current urgency, in superb audio.

Madlyn Davis, new to me, penned the irresistible, innuendo-filled “It’s Red Hot,” done funky here to complement the funky thoughts expressed. Rosetta Howard, from Chicago, is another welcome discovery by way of the album. Called “The Viper Girl,” Howard extolled the virtues of weed with “If You Were a Viper” back in the ’30s, imagining the effects of a 5-foot long joint! Block sings it loosely, a little loopy perhaps, perfectly. Rainey’s down low “Prove it on Me” was risqué seven decades ago, but its same sex essence resonates, and demonstrates how times really haven’t changed so much. With “Eagles,” Block bravely reveals her own hard blues, and places an original stunner very comfortably among those by the legends, and the lesser known ladies of the blues, that she celebrates so wonderfully here.

-Tom Clarke

Rory Block
'Prove It To Me'
Label:
Stony Plain Records
Release: Friday, March 27, 2020

ABOUT Tom Clarke

Tom Clarke
From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 23 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, and the 45-year timelines and ever-growing family trees of The Allman Brothers Band and Los Lobos. Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage. Tom and his wife Karen raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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