CD Review of The Lady and Mr. Johnson by Rory Block

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Buy your copy from Rory Block:
The Lady and Mr. Johnson
starstarstarstarno star Label: Rykodisc
Released: 2006
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Rory Block's made a four-decade career out of playing old, old music, even when the music biz stuck its nose up at her. Old meaning blues tunes of the 1920s and 1930s by originals such as Skip James, Charley Patton, and Robert Johnson. She stuck at it ever since the day she ran away from her New York City home in the 1960s and started playing blues for a living, stuck at it so long that she's arguably the top slide player on the planet, bar none. Her new album showcases that talent, playing familiar acoustic Robert Johnson compositions. Cuts such as "Cross Road Blues," "32-20 Blues," and "Hellhound on My Trail."

The CD also showcases some of Robert Johnson's recently discovered direct descendants, long considered lost by historians. Ryko went as far as to feature Richard Johnson, one of Robert's great grandsons, prominently on the album art, sort of like a ghost of the icon, sort of blessing Rory's interpretations of his tunes. My first reaction to this was a visceral "ugh." But the question is, if you take away all this hocus-pocus and the abundant pictures of Block, the (I'm not exaggerating, she should be a Bullz-Eye girl of the week) absolutely stunning 50-something troubadour (definitely a strong selling point for the predominantly male blues-buying public), what's left? A damn fine album that not only is performed well, but is recorded even better.

I swear, while Block speaks of some corny spiritual connection to Johnson in the liner notes that any clear-thinking blues fan will dismiss as total bosh, the recording is so live and clear that it sounds like Rory's performing these songs somewhere a couple inches above one's skull. That's a far cry from the scratchy junk most Robert Johnson fans must tolerate, what with all those remastered 78-RPM records. So while most blues fans have heard these songs a thousand times before – thank goodness she left "Love In Vain" off the record, that might have sent me over the edge – The Lady and Mr. Johnson truly is a beautiful sounding disc, and the woman can play guitar and holler and whoop through these songs like few other musicians, either now or then. Buy it for that, and enjoy the rest of the carnival she puts on.

~Mojo Flucke, PhD