“I believe girls can play guitar,” sang Patty Larkin in “Don’t” on Saturday at the Eighth Step at Proctors GE Theater. She and Rory Block proved it to the two-thirds-full GE Theater.
Larkin led off the two-set evening with happy love songs “Lately” and “Swearin’,” finger-picking her acoustic guitar impressively and as if to warm up for the instrumental that came next. She dazzled with zippy picking, strong strumming, harmonics and other effects.
“Who Holds Your Hand” and “Tango” relied on even more propulsive strumming, and wordless vocals at the bridges. But when she shifted to electric guitar for “Dear Heart,” the real fireworks began as she looped an ostinato then lit up a second figure over it with a fiddle bow; she added volume dial effects to those tricks in the instrumental that followed.
Then, “Don’t” provided a perfect change of pace, back to singing and her smartest, most ironic wordplay as she questioned conventional moral and social thinking — an internal dialog (about being raised Irish Catholic in the Midwest) gone public to profound and comic effect.
“The Book I’m Not Reading” rode a driving strum, perhaps her biggest acoustic-guitar number, before a quiet carol-like meditation and the ironic-affectionate “They Told Me” about ignoring warnings.
As she wrapped her opener, Larkin said Block was “a light to follow,” but on Saturday, Larkin shone just as brightly.
Martin must make Block’s signature guitars with extra-strong tops and the heaviest-gauge strings around. She lit into Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues,” Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” and Muddy Waters’ “I Be Bound” with a percussive arsenal of emphatic snaps and pops, the metal slide on her finger flying up the frets. Any band trying to follow her tempo shifts in “Bound” — or match her blistering pace through her early, caffeinated blues-classic explosions — would get whiplash.
Gradually, she hit her stride — i.e., slowed down, so the songs could breathe. And her performance gained emotional heft even as she sacrificed velocity. Her main influence Son House was the portal, combining blues with gospel in “Preachin’ Blues;” then Block’s own “I Declare” retold Job’s tale with depth and conviction.
She revved up again in Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues,” but this chestnut had it all cooking because she had slowed the pace. The Rev. Gary Davis’ “Lo I Be With You All Way” had the same strength, and a wonderful strangeness. Her own songs were more folk-y than blues-y, but strong and personal: “Like A Shotgun” about a breakup and “Lovin’ Whiskey” about another.
Larkin returned for duets in “Whiskey,” “Big Road Blues” and the encore, “Mississippi Blues,” swapping solos, singing some. Before Larkin launched in “Mississippi,” Block assured, “I’ve got your back now;” and the two welded riffs into something sweet and fierce. Girls can play guitar.