Monday, August 06, 2018

Rory Block's flawed Bessie Smith Tribute

Rory Block
A Woman's Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith
Stony Plain Records

Having recorded a series of albums paying tribute to some of the great blues artists that influenced her, not simply by their recordings, but also through personal relationships she had with them, Rory Block now turns attention to the iconic early blues women. Block writes in the liner notes, "Power Women of the Blues is a project that has been simmering in my imagination for 54 years.It has been my longstanding mission to identify, celebrate and honor the early founders—men and women—of the blues. This series is dedicated to the music of some of my all-time favorite iconic female blues artists, many of whom were shrouded in mystery during the sixties blues revival, while the recordings of others had simply disappeared."

This writer has mixed feelings about some (not all) of Block's recent recordings which had some vocals that were unlistenable to these ears. Listening to renditions of songs from the Empress of the Blues, the vocals are better, but we are dealing with a body of song that has been performed by a number of women (and men) over the past ninety odd years including albums by Lavern Baker, and Dinah Washington, and countless other performers have recorded songs associated with Bessie including (but hardly limited to) Barbara Dane, Nina Simone, Saffire-the Uppity Blues Women, Catherine Russell, Queen Latifah and Cecile McLorin-Salvant.

If not enamored with Block's singing, I do find her listenable and what is interesting in that she has taken recordings that were rooted in a piano accompaniment (and often with early jazz combos) and transformed them into acoustic guitar blues so we get a slide guitar accompaniment on "Do Your Duty." She does a decent vocal on "Kitchen Man," and her guitar accompaniment is fine but not sure of why she has the rhythm which these ears found distracting. On "Jazzbo Brown from Memphis Town," her vocal would have benefited with a little restraint, and the drumming is pretty mechanical. This is a shame since the slide guitar, evocative of Casey Bill Weldon, is quite good. "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl," is nicely sung and played, but what sounds like overdubbing of backing vocals and mechanical drumming on "On Revival Day," results in a lackluster performance.

I am ambivalent about "Empty Bed Blues," with a vocal that sounds a bit mannered, but has a nice backing. It sort of reflects the ambivalence this listener has on this entire recording. Others have sung tributes to Bessie Smith far better than Rory Block. I imagine if one listens to some of the tracks, and not view this as a tribute, one reasonably might have a more favorable view of this recording than this writer has.

I received from my review copy from a publicist. There are recent videos of Rory singing Bessie Smith from this album but for some reason, they are difficult to import into this post.

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