Review: Rory Block - 'Avalon: A Tribute To Mississippi John Hurt'

Block in top form as she continues her Mentors series...
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Rory Block continues her series devoted to the founding legends of the blues, this time turning her attention to the vastly influential work of the great Mississippi John Hurt on her new album Avalon.

Block has been on this road for quite some time having done records dedicated to the work of Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Rev. Gary Davis. She has devoted her life and work to the pursuit of the blues and recorded numerous albums of her own work but has found a special kind of enlightenment walking the paths and recording the music of, and inspired by, these pioneers.

Part of what makes these records so special is Block had the opportunity to meet the men whose work she pays tribute to, considering them mentors. She has more than an appreciation for the sounds they committed to acetate and vinyl; these artists have been guiding lights for her.

She opens the record with an original, "Everybody Loves John," that sets the tone for the album. It's lyrics and tone illustrate his historical significance and the personal impact he had on her through her opportunity to watch, hear, and meet him. She captures a piece of the spirit of his legacy in this track and, as we've come to expect, her playing is exquisite.

She quickly turns her attention to Hurt originals as well as songs he recorded from other sources. The title track is the next up and her seemingly limitless capacity for interpretation is at its best. She doesn't imitate Hurt or play note-for-note recreations of the originals but instead finds her way inside, reflecting the deep roots of the song as well as her connection to it.

Some of these songs are well-known to blues listeners either because they've been covered innumerable times or because subsequent blues legends made them their own by liberally borrowing from them and putting their own title on it. Block often succeeds in walking the tightrope of bringing to life the nuance of the original while allowing a piece of herself to shine through, regardless of how familiar the language or music may be.

"Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor" is one of those songs we've heard repeatedly. I adore Gillian Welch's interpretation as well as the version Irma Thomas recorded for After The Rain. Both of those women gave heartbreaking performances and slowed the tempo to allow the sadness and hurt to envelop us. Block's interpretation of this standard is very different, playing it uptempo with more of a ragtime arrangement. Now instead of a plea of a heartbroken wanderer we hear the song from the perspective of a wanderer embracing life as a drifter with no place to call home.

Rory Block has found a special way to share her many gifts with this Mentor series and Avalon is another strong installment. She's a special talent doing some of the finest work of her career and I hope she continues sharing her bond with blues trailblazers. I'm also eager to hear what she will come up with should she return to writing and recording her own material after revisiting the rich music of these masters and her personal connection to them.