The blues in twos
The CN&R’s resident blues experts check out the action at the Big Room
Music lovers were treated to an acoustic double-header at the Sierra Nevada Brewery’s Big Room last Sunday when guitarists Doug MacLeod and Rory Block put on a display of fingerpicking that had the packed room howling for more.
Opener MacLeod—whose authoritative fingerpickin’ and bottleneck slide playing, earthy blues singing and humorous banter was utterly captivating—was a tough act to follow.
MacLeod has a marvelously comfortable voice that’s enhanced by a slight Southern accent (he was raised in Virginia before moving as a teen to St. Louis). He eventually settled in L.A. in 1974 and gigged around before forming his first (electric) band and released four LPs before deciding to get back to his acoustic roots 12 years ago. A study in black and white—black socks, pants and shirt set off by a white vest, thick shock of white hair and spiffy black-and-white two-tone shoes—MacLeod plugged in his amplified 1991 National Resonator guitar and mightily entertained us during his too-brief, six-song set.
He opened with a loping blues that had a “Boogie Chillen” vibe, enhanced by some serious foot stomping that effectively evoked the shade of John Lee Hooker. A warm, garrulous man of 60, MacLeod has a fine sense of humor that popped up each time he introduced a song.
On “Your Bread Ain’t Done,” which was famously covered by Albert King, he informed us that the title is a Texas way of saying “you’re crazy,” then continued with “one out of three people is crazy, so look at who you’re sitting with.” This, and other remarks, had the audience in stitches.
“Sun Shine Down My Way” was a nod to Tampa Red’s “Sittin’ on top of the World” and spotlighted MacLeod’s slide playing, as did his last song, “East Texas Sugar.” MacLeod’s a master fingerpicker who fully lived up to Delta blues legend “Honeyboy” Edward’s encomium: “Now there’s a man who can really play the blues.” To which I can only say, “Amen.”
Rory Block, a multiple W.C. Handy award winner and arguably the No. 1 female interpreter of traditional country blues, appropriately opened her set with a song by the late country blues legend Son House. To introduce the song, Block talked reverentially of meeting House in 1965 when she was 15 and how “his influence has lasted my entire life.”
Block proceeded to fiercely pluck and shimmer-slide through the next three songs—another by Son House and two by the “King of the Delta Blues,” Robert Johnson—as she rocked her body and hit her foot to the floor in a manner akin to “channeling” the spirit of her idol, Johnson.
The middle of Block’s set consisted of songs in a different style—more folksy and very personal. Block wrote “Like a Shotgun,” which she said she plays every night, as a healing catharsis after the death of her partner of 10 years.
“My feeling of total despair changed to total joy,” Block explained. “ … And then it went back to total despair again.” Laughter from some audience members after her non-punch-line indicated a mindset not ready for Block’s brand of seriousness.
Block’s striking a cappella rendering of an old spiritual, which she had sung at the memorial gathering for the death of a bass player friend, was haunting, and her classic “Lovin’ Whiskey” ("My baby left me for the bottle / And the lure of the nightlife …") was beautiful and poignant.
But it seemed that there were two audiences: the one thirsting for more of the fun-loving vibe of MacLeod and the one there for the studied blues and seriousness of Block. A significant number of people (presumably MacLeod fans and early morning risers), headed for the door at 10 p.m., just before Block returned for her encore, Muddy Waters’ “I Be Bound.”