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Folk for Free 

Rory Block and the Aztec Two-Step headline the Tucson Folk Festival

For two decades, the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association has been bringing folk music out of the kitchen and living room, pulling it down from nightclub stages, freeing it from coffee houses and back porches. In other words, the TKMA has been giving the people of our fair city 20 years of free al fresco folk music in a lovely, central outdoor setting.

The traditional continues this weekend with two days of music by more than 100 artists on four stages in and around downtown's El Presidio Park. Gospel-blues singer-guitarist Rory Block and folk-rock duo Aztec Two-Step will be the special guests, occupying the headlining slots at the close of festivities on Saturday, April 30, and Sunday, May 1.

Aztec Two-Step will open for Block at 8 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday on the festival's main stage, called the Plaza Stage. But their presence hardly discounts the array of talent that will perform throughout the two days.

Continuous live music each day will include contemporary and traditional folk, blues, Celtic, bluegrass, folk-rock, gospel, Cajun and ethnic music, among others. Two venues--the Plaza and the Courtyard stages--will be located in El Presidio Park proper.

Nearby, you can enjoy music on stages on the Church Avenue side of the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave., and in the cool, green courtyard at Old Town Artisans shops, 201 N. Court Ave.

Born in Princeton, N.J., Block grew up in Manhattan surrounded by musicians such as Bob Dylan, Maria Muldaur and John Sebastian--her father owned a popular sandal shop in Greenwich Village. She became infatuated at an early age by country blues, and by the time she reached her teens, she was playing in Washington Square Park. She took her first lessons from the Rev. Gary Davis in the Bronx and later, through traveling, studied at the feet of such notable bluesmen as Son House, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt.

One of the great acoustic blues guitarists of her generation and an active musical preservationist, Block has been recording Delta-style blues since the mid-1960s, when she did an instructional record, How to Play Blues Guitar, and was billed as Sunshine Kate. After that, she took a decade or so off to start a family and returned to her recording career in the late 1970s, although she took a brief and uneventful detour into pop.

A four-time W.C. Handy Award-winning artist, Block is a musical archivist with hundreds of country blues numbers in her repertoire. She is equally adept at finger-picking and slide guitar techniques, and her trademark style combines both.

Block's 1981 album, High Heeled Blues, signaled the arrival of a new master. She has made a more than a dozen recordings, the most recent of which, From the Dust, on the Telarc label, was released in February of this year. A revelation, the new recording emphasizes Block's soul and gospel influences with hard-driving but bare bones acoustic numbers.

Opening for Block each day will be the recently rejuvenated folk-rock duo Aztec Two-Step, a charming and talented act that enjoyed cult status in the 1970s with in-the-know rocker colleagues and fans of obscure genius.

Singer-guitarists Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman made brilliant, acoustic-based rock and pop tunes, drawing from the folk troubadour tradition, that were as good as those of such groups as America, Loggins and Messina, Bread, and Simon and Garfunkel, just not as successful. Thus, they have described Aztec Two-Step as a "No Hit Wonder," which also served as the title of the documentary about them that aired several years ago on PBS.

Fowler and Shulman met in a Boston folk club in 1971 and decided to join forces, borrowing their name from a line in a Lawrence Felinghetti poem. During a storied career that straddled the divide between the Beat Generation and New Wave, Fowler and Shulman have played with or opened for a diverse role call or artists, including but not limited to Judy Collins, Randy Newman, Bruce Springsteen, Trisha Yearwood, Jim Croce, Talking Heads, Jackson Browne, Joan Jett, Richie Havens, Warren Zevon, Bill Cosby and Allen Ginsburg.

Aztec Two-Step last month released its 12th album, the disarming and consistently appealing Days of Horses, on Red Engine Records. It begins with the title track, Fowler's homage to classic cars, and ends with Shulman's wry "I Don't Believe in Jesus (But I Sure Do Like His Songs)," a decidedly Jewish embrace of gospel music.

For a complete schedule of the artists at this year's Tucson Folk Festival, check out www.tkma.org.

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