march 2011

Rory Block: The point is made and the heart is in the right place.

Shake, Baby, Shake

By David McGee

Rory Block
Stony Plain

Coming in the wake of her impressive tributes to Robert Johnson (The Lady and Mr. Johnson) and Son House (Blues Walkin’ Like a Man), this tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell has a twofold purpose: to allow Ms. Block to honor a bluesman who had a major impact on her own music, and to further her idea for constructing a “Mentor Series” of albums saluting the great blues masters of the past whose paths she crossed in her youthful, striving days and from whom she learned the ins and outs of the type of blues she most loves. Of course Robert Johnson doesn’t fit the conceptual conceit—unless Ms. Block has found the fountain of youth and is, you know, actually about forty years older than we thought—but the point is made and the heart is in the right place. This is a subdued gem of an album.

From The Lady and Mr. Johnson, Rory Block performs Robert Johnson’s ‘Terraplane Blues’

As she did with Son House’s songs, Ms. Block strives not for exact replications but for the soul of the performance. Based on her own liner notes, she did a meticulous study of McDowell’s hard-driving riffing style, and then found her own voice and took it home over the course of a dozen tunes, some of which she wrote herself based on a McDowell riff or his history. This produces, on the one hand, moments of inestimable beauty: built on McDowell’s basic arrangement, Block’s ”Ancestral Home” mingles the beauty and tragedy of McDowell’s African ancestors, romping carefree in the bucolic splendor of their native land one moment, the next enslaved on boats bound for distant shores; Block plays an ethereal, serpentine acoustic guitar figure behind her soft, crying vocal and slips in some untranslatable African dialect that is echoed in ghostly fashion by a Ladysmith Black Mambazo-like chorus. Similarly, the spare, droning guitar underneath her resolute vocal and a female chorus’s soulful interaction with it on “Woke Up This Morning” produces a stirring gospel cry. Conversely, she retools some McDowell burners in fine, heated fashion: think the sultry take on “Shake ‘Em On Down,” with its gritty, sensuous vocal, propulsive guitar and soul chorus; think “Kokomo Blues,” powering up on Block’s expressive slide work in support of a multi-textured vocal comprised of equal parts lust and longing—nothing nasty at all here, but suggestive enough in Block’s moaning and falsetto cries to induce a sweaty listening experience. Lord have mercy.

Add in the pulsating, slide-driven, autobiographical and slightly salacious encounter with the man himself in “Mississippi Man”; a driving, stomping, anguished breakup tune, “Write Me A Few Of Your Lines”; and not least of all “The Breadline,” a Block original suited for the New Depression, and appropriately unsparing in its sarcasm and simmering anger over a working woman’s desperate plight. Fred McDowell’s music was often a visceral charge at the listener, but in taking a less is more approach, favoring restraint over fury, Rory Block has brought heightened grandeur to the man’s legend and legacy. Honest and true, Shake ‘Em On Down will stick with you.

Rory Block’s Shake ‘Em On Down is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024