Wednesday, August 1, 2018


Block's Mentor Series of six collections was her way to celebrate the greats who inspired her in the blues. They were all originals who she was lucky enough to meet and study as a teen in New York in the '60's. Her tribute albums to Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell and the rest were not simply covers collections. They set Block apart as the leading interpreter of classic country blues today.

Now she has started a new series, and it will no doubt prove as excellent, and perhaps even more important than the Mentor Series. She's calling this Power Women Of The Blues, and she'll be following the same format, a full-length release on each of the legends selected. There's certainly no better place to start than Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, from the '20's and '30's. Her voice was like no other, so utterly real, filled with the reality of her struggles but also her absolute joy with what life could offer. Smith's lyrics still resonate, and can still even shock with the raw sexuality she describes in the flimsiest of codes.

"Oh, his jelly roll is so nice and hot
Never fails to touch the spot
I can't do without my kitchen man."

Then there's that description of a Harlem party on Saturday night:

"Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer
Send me again, I don't care, I feel just like I wanna clown
Give the piano player a drink because he's bringing me down."

It takes someone with experience and their own true quality to do justice to Smith's songs, to give them not only a proper airing but a believable one. Block plays every bit of every song here, all the percussion, bass and of course, her own acoustic guitar, including the stirring slide parts. These are also her own new arrangements. Smith recorded with piano and jazz combos, while Block has re-imagined the material as guitar-based, a whole new way of listening to these classics, and very satisfying.

It's worth noting how needed this collection is, and no doubt the rest to follow. You can't go a day without another blues album being released by some guy or band, doing yet another cover of the same Robert Johnson or Howlin' Wolf songs. Yet there are so many great women pioneers barely recognized today. Block acknowledges the lifetime work of Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur in her liner notes, long-time keepers of the flame, and having started this series, she'll also do lots to remind us of these incredible early performers.

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