LIVE: Rory Block’s Blues and Gospel Fest; Spiritual Nirvana as Blues and Gospel Combine 7/26-28/2019

Both blues and gospel share an ability to bleed emotion all over the stage and pierce an audience’s collective heart. The catharsis for both the audience and the performer becomes an intimate exchange commonly referred to as call and response. At its best, that exchange can embrace but also cut like a knife. Rory Block’s Blues and Gospel Fest July 26, 27 and 28 at PS21 in Chatham was so emotionally charged that I felt like I’d taken an overdose of steroids.

There was Rory Block herself fresh from winning her sixth Blues Music Award in Memphis revealing how this, her third blues and gospel festival in Chatham, a town she’s lived in for almost half a century, was a 60-year-old dream come true. As a teenager, she rubbed shoulders with her neighbor Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village, was told by Pete Seeger that her mother was having an affair with one of Seeger’s best friends, and she sat knee to knee with Son House who revealed to her that he’d taught Robert Johnson how to play guitar.

Photo by Jesse Finkelstein

On Saturday night, Rory sang her most popular original song “Love and Whiskey” that she wrote originally as a letter to a husband she could not save from a drinking problem that had destroyed their marriage. The song went gold in Europe, and she often gets comments after concerts from women who experience solace from hearing her sing it. Rory is today’s pre-eminent delta blues guitarist who has recently softened her touch on slide guitar and honed her voice on numbers by Son House and Robert Johnson to the point of recreating these classics in a way that is revelatory without losing their authenticity – a rare ability.

Shemekia Copeland’s America’s Child CD won one of two Blues Music Awards for her in May. She spoke of how her two-and-a-half-year-old child changed her outlook on her place in life. She opened her Saturday set with “Ain’t Got Time for Hate.”  Each of us is America’s Child. The album has singularly changed the paradigm of the genre and crossed over into Americana with its powerful “Would You Take My Blood” about a racist who’d rather die than receive a transfusion from someone not of his race.

Photo by Jesse Finkelstein

Shemekia encored with “Ghetto Child” written for her by her father, blues singer Johnny Clyde Copeland, when she was a little girl growing up in Harlem. Shemekia has an ability to shout lyrics full throated but carefully articulated so that you can understand every word. Many of her songs are written by her manager John Hahn who took her under his wing figuratively adopting her at 16 when her father died. Hahn is a former Manhattan advertising copywriter whose lyrics are the most colorful, effusive, and emotionally charged since Willie Dixon’s prolific writing for Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters in the 1950s.

The 20 singers in the Macedonia Baptist Church Men’s Choir almost rattled the glass out of the windows of the Chatham AME Church on Sunday. It’s one thing to be overpoweringly loud, but this choir does it with polished finesse and a collective faith that is a palpable gift of God. Such a group may be heard in African American churches weekly but is rarely presented to a predominantly white audience that filled the congregation Sunday afternoon in Chatham.

Photo by Jesse Finkelstein

The choir director figuratively grabbed the audience by the throat announcing “We aren’t playing! We don’t play church! We are for real!” And the men stood tall in the 90-degree heat and ratcheted the temperature another 10 degrees in their amazingly well-rehearsed presentation of spirituals that included “Jesus Is The Rock,” “God Never Fails,” and “I’m Calling Your Name.”

I introduced Albany’s own Heavenly Echoes to close Sunday’s Gospel Fest by saying that Son House, himself an ordained preacher, was forced to teach a young John Campbell blues guitar on the front porch because Son’s wife didn’t want the devil’s music played in her home. The Heavenly Echoes have performed for my stepdaughter’s Christmas benefit at the Flight Line Bar and Grille in Scotia four years in a row to a receptive Saturday night crowd. How things have changed in half a century.

Photo by Jesse Finkelstein

Founded by the late James Edmonds in 1960, The Heavenly Echoes are the New York Capital Region’s premier gospel group. When not spreading the gospel on Sunday mornings at a variety of area churches, they have a rich heritage of raising spirits at such high-profile events as Saratoga’s annual First Night celebration, Troy’s Sanctuary for Independent Media’s “Moving Heaven and Earth” multi-group gospel extravaganzas, and The Martin Luther King Day homage at The Strand in Hudson Falls.

They opened with The Temptations’ “My Girl,” changing the lyrics to “My God.” Oldest group member Earl Thorpe’s legacy traces back to his tenure with doo-wop group The Fidelities in the ’50s sharing the stage at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem with Etta James, Fats Domino, Jackie Wilson, and The Coasters.

About half way through their Sunday performance, Earl had to be helped off the stage, succumbing to the heat. Lead tenor Hayes Coleman never missed a beat, cooling the crowd down with a version of “Coming Home” that showcased a multi-octave range that soared into a high falsetto.

James Carr led the group off the stage and down the church aisle to close the festival with “Moving On” with lyrics about moving to the place where I belong. “I know I don’t have very long to stay. My body is weak and I’m running out of time.”

Photo by Jesse Finkelstein

Duke Robillard opened the festival Friday night. He’s a veteran electric blues guitarist who could do a show in his sleep. And Friday night he almost did.

1 Comment
  1. Bill says

    Thanks for the review, Shemekia is my favorite singer. Not sure what you mean about Duke Robillard, was it an unimpressive show or did he say he was real tired or what?

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