Rory Block, last fair deal (Telarc, 2003)
Delbert McClinton, LIVE (New-West Records, 2003)

There's a lot of talk about the blues these days, and once Martin Scorsese's PBS series airs...there'll be lots more. These two artists have both been working in the blues field for a long time. These offerings, their latest, show growth and development, and a range of influences that belies the simplicity of the form of music they have chosen.

Rory Block has been heralded as "a living landmark" (Berkeley Express), and "a national treasure" (Guitar Extra). She certainly can play that bottleneck guitar! And she utilizes forms and conventions from beyond the blues, looking to folk, and gospel, seeking to bring a vibrant amalgam to life. She grew up in Manhattan, daughter of a fairly liberal, even Bohemian, family. Her father owned a sandal shop in Greenwich Village, and Rory (short for Aurora) hung with such musicians as Bob Dylan, John Sebastian and Maria Muldaur. She also got to meet the real legendary guys -- Reverend Gary Davis, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James! She was playing well enough that Son House wondered, "Where did she learn to play like this?" It was from these contacts, and from listening endlessly to the original recordings that she developed the precise technique that is the mark of her guitar playing.

last fair deal is Block's first album for Telarc. It combines eight original tunes with six covers rooted in the blues and gospel songbook. It's an easy album to listen to. Block's voice is strong, a little shrill in the higher registers, but usually compelling. Her guitar playing is extraordinary. On Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues" and "Last Fair Deal" her enunciation is just a bit too "city" but the slide playing is wonderfully authentic. Her vocals are more convincing on the gospel numbers, like "Look What the Lord Has Done" or "Cry Out Loud." The choral vocals are stunning on the latter tune. She rediscovered this original song on an old cassette and relearned it for this recording. It's a highlight. All the guitars and all the vocals are by Rory Block herself.

Ms Block calls last fair deal a "celebration of my beloved instrument and best friend the guitar..." and that's how the album sounds. As a guitar player myself, I know the joys of just sitting down and playing for an hour, running through old favourites, trying out something new. Maybe a little noodling! When Rory Block "noodles" there's something happening. This album is not for everyone, but if you have a guitar for a friend, you'll want to give it a listen.

Delbert McClinton is the man who taught John Lennon how to play the harmonica...but don't hold that against him. He's been putting out solid little rockin' albums of blues-based rock for forty years. He started in the house band of a Fort Worth blues club, where they backed people like Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bobby "Blue" Bland. I saw him play on Austin City Limits one late night, and he owned the show. His studio recordings feature creative arrangements and good playing but live this guy, and his powerhouse band really rock the joint.

LIVE is, as you might guess, a live show, originally broadcast on Norwegian radio. This performance, at the Bergen Blues Festival earlier this year was so tasty that it just cried out to be released as an album. Thanks to New-West for packaging this potent two-disc set. It's a virtual anthology of McClinton's greatest hits, covering his whole career. Songs like "Giving It Up For Your Love" (Top 10 hit from 1980) sit next to all out rockers ("Why Me?") and the blues pastiche "Rebecca, Rebecca" (which pays tribute to those Texas blues roots). "I've Got Dreams to Remember" is always a standout. The band is hot, with a zippy horn section, some dazzling piano, and a fiery guitarist. Players were not named on the pre-release copy we previewed but they sizzle in their anonymity and Delbert McClinton's husky vocals float on top. "Back to Louisiana" is a brisk shuffle, and McClinton reclaims "B-Movie Boxcar Blues" from the Blues Brothers. All in all an enjoyable cruise down Blues Avenue.

These two old pros continue to provide professional, gritty, smoking music, and even a new direction or two. They're moving comfortably into the new millenium with a musical form that's eighty years old and breathing new life into it with every song. Recommended!

[David Kidney]