Rory Block

Rory Block
I Belong To The Band - A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis

Stony Plain Records - SPCD1359

By David Wilson
September 2012

This is a remarkable recording by a remarkable musician. In its attempt to pay tribute to the unparalleled Reverend Gary Davis, it succeeds precisely because of where, in performance, it fails.

Cryptic as that may sound, I will try to make it make sense.

Rory has released some astounding previous tribute albums, memorializing Son House, Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson and her integral understanding of and ability to perform the techniques of each of those performers and Delta blues styles is, across the board, as good as it gets.

Rory is the first one to admit that she can never play or sing “just like” any of the giants, but espouses the doctrine that attempting to do so is a strategy for growth. In doing so, her style has become one which future blues performers will endeavor to emulate.

With Rev. Gary Davis, there arise a few factors to make the attempts even more of a challenge than with most.

The guitar was more an extension of the Reverend than an instrument. It was rarely out of his hand. Dave Van Ronk, himself a keen observer of Gary Davis and his mechanics, tells the story of sharing a ride back to New York with Davis in the car of a mutual friend. The Rev sat in back noodling on the guitar while Van Ronk sat up front. After listening to Gary play the same tune for over an hour, Van Ronk turned to him to complain only to find Davis playing while deep in sleep.

Gary Davis’ voice, deep and gravelly and his guitar’s voice, piquant and brilliant, had long come into a negotiated relationship that precisely accommodated each other. Each had learned how best to nestle with the other. Gary’s guitar phrasings were endlessly varied in extremely subtle nuances so that even with a fairly limited repertoire, his performance constantly sounded fresh and of the moment.

From the moment I heard Rory’s rendition of “Samson and Delilah” all the way through to the grief laden “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” which ends the performance, I was amazed and pleased with her playing and pleased with her vocal restraint, wisely refraining from trying to emulate Davis’ sound. Her capture of Davis’ runs, picking style, unique bass lines, and point counter point, are all much truer than I ever would have expected to hear from anyone other than the man himself.

And yet, when I then played some Gary Davis renditions, the difference in presence, brilliance, contrast of Gary’s voice with the voice of the guitar, then and only then, did I understand how much more difficult it would truly be to emulate the Rev.

Rory’s tribute is tribute indeed to aim so high, to climb so far, and still show us how much farther the mark is beyond. And if it leads others to discover the Reverend Gary Davis and his body of work, it is a treasure in itself.

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