Monday is a good night for the blues. The weekend's over, the workweek slog has only begun, and Friday is a long ways away. But if you want to feel good about feelin' bad, head on over to the Met this Monday and catch Rory Block as she pounds the steel strings and stomps her foot to the driving beat of authentic and original country blues. Block may be a white gal from New York, but she learned her craft at the feet of the blues masters, and what she plays is the real thing.
I first heard Rory Block sing the blues during a grueling early morning commute near Boston in the middle of the greed-is-good '80s. As I drove to my fast-paced, soul-grinding job in corporate finance, she growled about lovin' a man who's "Lovin' Whiskey" and sang about her own "Gypsie Boy" with Stevie Wonder wailing on the harmonica behind her. She poured out deeply personal stories in her own songs and claimed classic blues tunes for herself. Her percussive guitar style echoed the anger and frustration I felt and her strength gave me just that little bit of armor I needed to get through the day.
"I enjoy being able to blast people's stereotypes, to completely derail their preconceived notions," Block explains on her Web site. "But at no time in the past did I ever think: 'Now I'm going to play like a man.' It was just my style from the beginning. I have always loved dynamic sounds and strong rhythms."
Block began life on a farm in rural New Jersey in 1949, living in a house with no plumbing; she calls her parents "the world's first hippies." The family soon moved to New York City where her father, Allan, eventually set up a sandal shop in Greenwich Village that doubled as a music venue and attracted some of the best musicians of that heady era. Block picked up the guitar and taught herself to accompany her dad's fiddle tunes; by 14, she was jamming with people like David Grisman, John Sebastian and Stefan Grossman. It was Grossman who introduced her to the country blues and had her play for blues masters like Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and Son House.
"I was already infatuated with country blues before I met any of the masters," she says, "but there's no doubt that meeting in the flesh was an incalculable inspiration and helped to cement my knowledge of and passion for the music."
The question Block fields most often is how a white girl from New York could feel and interpret the music of black men who lived in the segregated South. "I always make an analogy to falling in love," she writes. "It's a mystery. Who knows why we are drawn to things or why they resonate with us? I can only say that it sounded like the most hauntingly beautiful music I had ever heard and that it spoke to what was in my heart."
While I was learning about Block's music in the Boston rush hours of 1986, she was learning about the blues the hard way; her oldest son, Thiele, a rising guitar hero in his own right, died in an automobile accident just shy of his 20th birthday. Now she often tours with her younger son, Jordan, who is in his early thirties. Her latest recording, Last Fair Deal, out on Telarc Blues last fall, holds about half originals and half traditional blues and gospel songs. She's been nominated for two more W. C. Handy awards, and she's on a swing through the West in support of the new CD.
"After reeling from years of criticism and scraping myself off the floor, repeatedly hearing that I was no one and would go nowhere, after always being out of style, unhip, never the latest thing, never what's hot, too young, too old, too blue, too unique, too you name it, weirdly, things have changed," she writes. "When I walk down the road now, it is with gratitude in every step."
Playing with stars like Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt and Mark Knopfler proved that Block had made it in the music world, as did her four W. C. Handy Awards. But she says hearing from ordinary people about their extraordinary reactions to her music is what convinced her she had arrived.
"Music, the guitar, the songs I write have always been a lifesaver to me," she says. "At the lowest points in my life, in moments of zero hope, something has prompted me to start playing. Melody and rhythm have a vibration that goes beyond 'healing' all the way to super-empowering. It really connects you to the central, limitless core force in the universe."
Catch the Cab -- When Seattle's Death Cab for Cutie was last in our neighborhood (in September), the band had just completed rehearsals for the tour that would support its shiny new album, Transatlanticism. It named Spokane Tour Stop One, a testing ground of sorts for new songs that had rarely been heard outside of the studio. Local fans responded warmly. Well, those songs have a little mileage on them now, and Death Cab is coming back around to show Spokane audiences how they've evolved this Saturday night at the Big Easy with special guest opening act, Pedro the Lion.
Transatlanticism is a fine addition to the Death Cab catalog. While it is, on the one hand, familiar as an old sweater to devotees of previous efforts like The Photo Album and We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, there are notable differences. The shifting arrangements incorporating melodic guitars, light electronica and singer Ben Gibbard's accessible vocals provide points of reference. The differences, as hard as they are to define precisely, hint at a new, and, according to Gibbard, highly collaborative, studio-centric approach to songwriting.
"We didn't work on any songs together until we started rehearsing and arranging songs for the record," he says. "But we've always worked together on the music. I don't say, 'you play this, you play that,' you know. Early on, when we played our first shows, it was a little bit like that. And every once in awhile I have those moments where I have a part for somebody that I think would be good."
What's been good for DCfC since they formed in Bellingham six years ago is the band's mutually satisfying relationship with their record label, the small, independent Seattle imprint, Barsuk. That relationship -- along with the group's famously low-key demeanor -- keeps the musicians (Gibbard, Chris Walla, Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr) well grounded even as they seek greater national exposure and flirt with critical and popular darling-dom.
"You have to make compromises, even with an indie," notes Gibbard. "Bands that go to major labels, if they're smart, know they're going to have to make a lot of compromises. But I think that people go to the majors because it's a gamble. I've heard from some bands that say they love it and other bands think it's the worst thing ever. There are those that make it work. But I think for most bands it's not the answer."
Locals Get a Shot -- So far, all the buzz surrounding the new Big Easy Concert House has been about the huge national acts the club has lined up and the wild nights of dancing synonymous with Club Fusion. That is all about to change. Starting this Thursday, March 18, the Big Easy will feature local musicians onstage. To kick it all off, Ten Minutes Down will bring its energetic, crowd-pleasing live show to local music fans still looking for a reason to check out the club.
Turning things up a notch will be Dax Johnson at the Big Easy on March 25. Johnson will be kicking off a Northwest tour with this show and is using it as the debut of his reinvention. Johnson will be doing two sets during the show, one solo piano and one vocal. At a recent solo piano showcase, Johnson gave the reason behind his shift in musical focus and why Spokane is the place to move forward with his current work.
"This town has been so supportive of me. Spokane isn't the town I'm most known in, but I wanted to debut this new material here to show my appreciation."
This Big Easy show will serve as a dual CD release party. Johnson's third solo piano album entitled Levity features his signature style as well as few new techniques that are sure to leave listeners reeling in melodic bliss.
The main focus, however, is Johnson's concentration on his vocal album. The Beauty of Human Error will also be released at this show
"I've always been a vocalist," Johnson says. "I just decided it was time to pursue it. I consider my voice another instrument, like the violin or whatever, another part of the orchestra in my head."
Indeed this new material is fascinating. Fragile piano and intricate finger-style guitar lay the groundwork for Dax's self-described "charred yet melodic" vocal approach. The result is a totally new and fascinating blend of emotion and sound that is sure to be on the edge of innovation.
"The vocal stuff is gonna be for a whole new audience," Johnson says. It will be directed more toward the college radio crowd, but it also has a broad appeal.
Plans for Dax's future endeavors are grand. He is in the process of finalizing a deal with Kramer Entertainment that would land him 240 shows a year. The shows would be split between colleges and universities, as well as theaters around the country. But all this doesn't seem to phase Dax.
"I'm a vessel for the music. My job is to shut my body and mind off and let the music flow through me," Johnson says. This vocal album has been a long time coming -- as Johnson puts it, "I feel complete doing this vocal project."
Publication date: 03/17/04