Chatham-based blues goddess Rory Block will soon be going into full-band rehearsals before a 14,000 mile bus tour supporting her new album Tornado. Sound grueling? You ain’t heard the half of it — Block has spent much of the last decade and a half similarly engaged, while somehow also finding the time to produce eleven beautiful albums that hang like colorful cloisonne beads on an unbroken asphalt-black touring thread. Of course, all this road work means that we don’t get to see her as often as we’d like, but last Saturday a relaxed Block put on a very neighborly performance at the RPI McNeil Room. She confided that she was “practicing” new material on us, marveled at the convenience of being able to sleep in her own home after a show, and put Tornado in its proper local context: the title song was inspired by the twister that struck between Hillsdale and Great Barrington last summer.
While Block’s upcoming full band tour will undoubtedly provide wonderful opportunities to fill bigger venues and thereby reach more people, it’s awfully hard to imagine that there is any better way to experience Block than the way we got her last week: alone with her guitar in a small warm room. She opened her unplanned amorphous set with Kansas Joe McCoy’s “Joliet Bound” (from last year’s acoustic blues album “When a Woman Gets the Blues”) and immediately spot-welded the audience to its collective seat with her clarion voice and viciously aggressive guitar work. Block only used a slide once during her generous show (on Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues”) but somehow still routinely got slide guitar’s loosey goosey slippery string sound through tremendously strong finger work and a wide range of open tunings. You just know you’re listening to a great guitar player when her between song capo and string adjustments are as fascinating to listen to as many other soloist’s finest widdly guitar moments.
And as if the Guitar weren’t enough, there was the Voice. Block performed two a cappella numbers: the title track from 1992’s Ain’t I A Woman (based on Sojourner Truth’s famous speech) and Andy Barnes’ “The Last Leviathan” from Tornado. I have never seen a single vocalist so fill a room with sound and presence — the already statuesque and radiant Block seemed to positively tower at the front of the stage, singing with her voice, her body, her hands, her soul. “Leviathan” was sung in the first person from a whale’s perspective and could have been quickly rendered schmaltz if presented by a lesser performer; in Block’s voice, though, it was (exclaimed visiting young friend Emily) “the saddest song I’ve ever heard!” Indeed.
One of the evening’s most extraordinary aspects came from watching Block fall into the songs she performed. Without a set-list, she often had to work to excavate a song’s structure from some great deep subliminal chord-bank — but once she tapped the appropriate lode she would close in around her guitar, physically letting the music take her into and through the ensuing lyric. Block’s encore number took the most digging — we waited a couple of minutes until she locked into “You Deserve the Best,” the standout track from her 1994 album Angel of Mercy.
We all may not have really deserved the best, but the wonderful Rory Block was kind enough to give it to us anyway. What a neighbor!