Album Review: Avalon – A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt by Rory Block

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New Jersey native Rory Block is often hailed as one of the highly regarded blues musicians of her generation. At the age of 15, Block set off on a cross-country hitchhiking road trip to the West Coast (via the South). Along the way she learned more than a few lessons in playing the blues. Her travels took her to meet many of blues’ founding fathers. As a performer, she played as many as 250 shows a year during the late 1970s and early 1980s, recording 22 albums and receiving four W.C. Handy Awards.

Block has a remarkable talent for re-imagining blues classics and has released four tribute albums, dedicated to influential blues mentors in her musical development. Her latest, Avalon: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, features ten celebrated Hurt songs as well as a Block original (Everybody Loves John). Produced by Block and Rob Davis, the album features rich, delectable acoustic guitar tones, with skillful fingerpicking and slinky slide work (courtesy of a 14mm deep well socket), and Block’s instantly recognizable, muscular vocals.

For the uninitiated, Block’s voice is at once ethereal and guttural, a dichotomous delight that never grows tiring. At its times of seeming fragility, her voice coyly belies a barely-contained ferocitya simmering intensity Block lets boil over in just the right amounts at just the right times.

Block chose to record her newest album without excess polish or studio finagling: “One of the things I have endeavored to capture in this tribute series is a return to a more earthy, natural approach,” Block explains. “We don’t love the old recordings because they are crackle-free, or fancy, or have clever formats…. This is part of what I love. So instead of sweeping the tracks clean of all noise, sanitizing, bleaching, disinfecting and straining the music, Rob and I feel compelled to let it be real.”

And real it is; the sound is close and personal, as if she’s singing directly to us, while her guitar is wonderfully huge (I commend her choice to fearlessly mix the guitars so prominently). Hurt’s lyrics are familiar friends to Block, as if penned by her own hand. And she successfully channels him while seducing the listener with titillating narratives of love, betrayal, revenge, and murder.

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