On Stage: Blues legends come to Sellersville

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

John Mayall

If you’re a fan of blues music, the only place you should want to be on August 20 is the Sellersville Theater (24 West Temple Avenue, Sellersville, 215-257-5808, www.st94.com).

The two acts on the bill, both of whom specialize in the blues, have been making music for a combined total of 118 years.

John Mayall, a British blues legend, has been plying his trade for 63 years. Rory Block, one of America’s top blues artists, has been playing the blues for 55 years.

Mayall’s first album – “Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton” — was released in 1966. Since then, he has released more than 30 albums, the most recent of which is 2018’s “Three for the Road.”

Rory Block

Block released her first album – “How To Play Blues Guitar” – one year after Mayall’s debut LP. She also has released more than 30 albums. Her most recent release is “A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith,” which came out in 2018.

If music fans want to learn about the history of the genre known as blues music, a great place to start would be Block’s impressive catalog — especially “The Mentor Series” and the “Power Women of the Blues” series.

“‘The Mentor Series’ is six CDs,” said Block, during a break in a recording session at her studio in rural Kentucky.  “It’s dedicated to the rediscovered blues masters who I met in person, those who I spent time with.”

The highly acclaimed blues guitarist/singer not only is a stellar player whose music is steeped in authenticity, she also is a living conduit to blues greats such as Son House, Rev. Gary Davis and Robert Johnson.

One of her albums a decade ago was “Blues Walkin’ Like A Man”, which was a tribute to Son House.

“I have a uniquely personal feeling about this recording (“Blues Walkin’ Like A Man”) because of spending quality time with Son House,” said Block.

“People thank me for keeping the old music alive. “Being able to bring historic music to a current day audience has always been very important to me. I feel that I am on a mission to keep the old music alive- to prevent it from disappearing into the mists of time – and always to mention the names of the original writers, lest we forget.”

When Block was in her early teens, her father was deeply involved in the folk revival scene in the West Village and hosted regular Saturday afternoon jam sessions in his sandal shop. In 1964, Block heard an album called “Really The Country Blues” and immediately became dedicated to learning how to play blues.

“I met my first boyfriend Stefan Grossman when he was playing music at the Sunday afternoon jam sessions in Washington Square Park,” said Block. “He handed me an album called “Really The Country Blues” and I was immediately hooked. All I knew was that it was the most beautiful, soulful, haunting music I had ever heard, and it resonated with what was in my heart.”

The blues came knocking and Block eagerly opened the door.

“Stefan was part of a small, incredibly dedicated group of blues fans- just a handful of aficionados — players like John Hammond, John Fahey, and Jo Ann Kelly — plus record collectors and historians who drove through the South looking to find the original blues players. As they were located, they were brought through New York City to perform. Stefan and I were there and got to meet and play music with them too,” said Block.

Block took full advantage of the opportunity that was presented to her.

“I was extremely fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time,” said Block. “My father’s sandal shop was a musical hub where all kinds of great musicians would gather to jam, and I just happened to be right there in the middle of it.”

Fresh from her latest triumph at the May 2019 Blues Music Awards in Memphis, where she won “Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year” honors, the now six-time BMA winner continues to tour in support of her first “Power Women of the Blues” album series CD, “A Woman’s Soul.” The album is a tribute to the legendary Bessie Smith.

According to Block, “‘Power Women of the Blues’ is a project that has been simmering in my imagination for 54 years. It has been my longstanding mission to identify, celebrate and honor the early founders—men and women—of the blues. This series is dedicated to the music of some of my all-time favorite iconic female blues artists, many of whom were shrouded in mystery during the sixties blues revival, while the recordings of others had simply disappeared.”

For a long time, it was a challenge to find records by early blues artists who were male. Finding music by female blues artists was extremely challenging.

“With ‘Power Women of the Blues’” said Block, “I’m reaching into the archives again to celebrate both known and less-known female artists who were among the greatest in the genre. After doing the ‘Mentor Series,’ the ‘Women’s Series’ was a no-brainer. I thought – why not do tributes to my favorite women of the blues. It just felt like it was time.”

While many of the tracks by these musical pioneer women have been covered in recent years and are familiar to listeners, the source of the tracks has been frequently ignored.

“I am determined to celebrate the artists who created this powerful, influential style of music,” said Block. “And I feel ever more inspired to bring the history of the blues to life so that people will again hear the names of the original artists.”

Block first heard Bessie Smith’s life-changing voice in 1964 as a teenager living in New York City.

According to Block, “Filled with grit and incredible vocal prowess, it was the ultimate soulful wail — so compelling, so honest, so rich with meaning and information about the female soul.”

“A Woman’s Soul” was produced by Rory Block and Rob Davis and recorded at Aurora Studios in Chatham, New York. All vocals are by Block, who also played all the guitar and bass parts on her Signature Model Martin Guitars. Additionally, all of the percussion — guitar bongos, hat boxes, plastic storage tubs, oatmeal boxes and wooden spoons – was played by Block.

“Bessie was one of the most successful and influential early blues/jazz performers of her day,” said Block. “I loved her music from the moment I heard her voice. Starting the ‘Power Women Of The Blues’ series with Bessie Smith was an obvious choice. She was always among the strongest inspirations in my career. And there was also always a lot of her music available, which was not the always case with a great many other female

Deciding which Bessie Smith songs to use on the album wasn’t that hard a task for Block.

“I do it by feel,” said Block. “It’s as if the songs just pick themselves. They essentially leap out of the speakers and scream – ‘record me.’ Bessie’s music has a terrific combination of elements that appeal to me. It’s all about energy, drive and drama- all the elements that make music exciting.

“I have always had an overwhelmingly strong connection to early music – to the spirit of it – so I know right away if I can resonate with a specific song.”

Even though Block is touring and has a new album, she is not out on an “album support tour.” Her set list is too comprehensive to overload it with many songs from one project.

“Over time, a musical retrospective has come into focus,” said Block. “It’s really the story of my whole life. And there are now so many songs and recordings – I’ve lost count- probably around 30 albums including compilations. I’ve been recording my whole life so there is just this vast array of material.”

Video link for Rory Block – https://youtu.be/lQ_PKvC4v7k.

The show at the Sellersville Theater, which also features John Mayall, will start at 8 p.m. Ticket prices range from $39.50-$55.

Other upcoming shows at the venue are Clap Your Hands Say Yeah on August 17, Mipso on August 18 and Ten Years After on August 21.

฿Ɽ₭₦ ⱠØVɆ

฿Ɽ₭₦ ⱠØVɆ, a New York-based rock band, has been around for less than two years but already has played Philly a few times. The band’s show at The Foundry at Fillmore Philadelphia (1100 Canal Street, Philadelphia, 215-309-0150, www.thefillmorephilly.com) on August 19 follows previous appearances at Voltage Lounge and Bourbon & Branch.

The band originated as a solo project by Justin Benlolo, a young guitarist from Toronto, Ontario.

“We’ve been together for about a year-and-a-half,” said Benlolo, during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon as the band travelled from Chicago to a gig in Nashville. “I met the other guys through my management and the New York scene. He had a bunch of connections.”

Benlolo has been a performer for most of his life.

“I started in musical theater when I was seven or eight,” said Benlolo. “I took advantage of any opportunity to sing in front of people. I just picked up singing on my own. My uncle was a guitarist with his own band and that was inspiring. I started learning guitar when I was 12.”

Eventually, Benlolo started thinking about putting together a band of his own.

According to Benlolo, “When I first thought about starting a band, it needed all of the elements of rock ‘n’ roll that I respond to — big guitars, big drums, and big vocals. I didn’t want it to be too complex. It had to be something everybody could digest in a short and sweet format.

“It’s alternative, but it’s also heavy. I try to get right to the point. There are so many of these kids still showing up to shows and moshing to real rock music. That’s refreshing. There’s still a place for something authentic. That’s what I want to provide.”

Born and raised in Canada, Benlolo cut his teeth by obsessing over the likes of Kiss and then Soundgarden and Led Zeppelin in his youth, while learning how to write music. With the advent of bands such as Royal Blood and Highly Suspect, he recognized the potential for a “different kind of band — that’s not too macho and slick, but edgy enough for the punks.”

“฿Ɽ₭₦ ⱠØVɆ is a work-in-progress,” said Benlolo, who describes the music as “alternative rock with a harder edge.”

“I had a record done before ฿Ɽ₭₦ ⱠØVɆ existed. So, I put a band together around the music. At first it was just me. As time went on, I found the guys that would fit what I was looking for.

“The first ฿Ɽ₭₦ ⱠØVɆ album will be a fall release. I recorded the guitars and vocals myself and then hired guys to play bass and drums. I cut it at Studio G in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. I did it in two halves – six songs at a time. The guys on the album had their own things. I just hired them for the recording sessions.

“Now, the band has Kyle Duke on guitar, Nick Katz on bass, Russell Holdman on drums and me on guitar and vocals. We’ve been playing together for almost two years. We’ve been on tour for a while. Because of that tight schedule, we haven’t done any recording together yet.

“The album that is already done will come out on Spinefarm Records. They came to one of our New York showcases and liked what they heard. The album will drop sometime in the fall – maybe November.”

Video link for ฿Ɽ₭₦ ⱠØVɆ — https://youtu.be/gkLMzGtZBOI.

The show at The Foundry, which has Dinosaur Pile-Up as the headliner, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.

Other upcoming shows at The Foundry are Miyavi on August 20 and “Bomb Digz Present: The Gizzy Lyfe Tour” on August 21.

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