Monday, July 20, 2009

Ronnie Earl's soulful playing

Here is a review of a DVD of Ronnie Earl live in performance. It appeared in the December 2008 Jazz & Blues Report, Issue 311 (which can be downloaded at

Stony Plain has just issued a DVD by Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters, “Hope Radio Sessions,” which was filmed and recorded at Wellford Sound in Acton, Massachusetts in April 2007. On these two all instrumental blues sessions, Earl’s guitar is backed by Dave Lumina on piano and Hammond organ, Jim Mouradian on bas and Lorne Entress on drums with special guests, guitarist, Nick Adams, and Michael ‘Mudcat’ Ward on bass and keyboards. Earl has had an extraordinary career, first coming to notice as the guitarist with Sugar Ray & the BlueTones who i saw in 1978 backing J.B. Hutto in new York City. I picked up an EP by the group that included Earl featured on an Earl Hooker instrumental that quickly had one observe his tone and musical imagination. He had also a productive spell in Roomful of Blues, replacing Duke Robillard, before taking the lead with his Broadcasters with whom he backed a number of terrific blues singers and legends. Musically one can hear a diverse group of influences including Robert Lockwood, Otis Rush, Earl Hooker and Johnny Heartsman. What is noteworthy about all of them is the attention to tone and nuances in all their playing, and Earl’s music has always focused on subtle musical invention as opposed to simply banging out hard rocking blues solos. And in recent years, his music has become jazzier.

Handling substance abuse and other issues, Earl turned to faith and his music perhaps is a bit more introverted (although he still can get down and get funky as the mood suits him. The Introduction by the Reverend Deborah J. Blanchard mentions getting to know Ronnie and how his music has the gift of being able to touch and soothe the soul. Certainly at times on this video his guitar and backing band do just that. He opens his performances here with a jazzy “Bobby’s Bop,” with a nice groove and some jazz-inflected playing, before he launches into the moody “Blues For the Homeless.” He gets into a funky groove for “Eddie’s Gospel Groove,” where he calls to the audience to get up and move, before two moody slow blues instrumentals, “I Am With You,” and “Kay My Dear.” “New Gospel Tune,” opens with some evocative churchy piano from Lumina to set the mood. The second evening’s performances opens with Earl playing some charged Otis Rush-styled guitar, with Mudcat on bass and Nick Adams on second guitar. It is followed by “Blues For the West Side,” which was an instrumental originally recorded by Magic Sam, whose playing Earl evokes without imitating, and on which Mudcat guests on keyboards. It is followed by a solo “Lightnin’ Hopkins Thing.” Also included is an interview with Stony Plain’s Holger Petersen and then an abbreviated, skeletal rendition of the traditional “I Shall Not be Moved.”

I found the lack of a vocalist or horns made the performances best sampled in batches as opposed to straight through, although others might disagree. Earl often does reach the heart with the playing here. The video production is excellent following the keep it simple stupid school that focuses on the performers and performances and realizes that this is not for MTV but for fans of blues, jazz and Ronnie Earl. Well worth checking out by his fans and fans of blues guitar.

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