Ronnie Earl the Broadcasters | Rise Up | (Stony Plain)
4 out of 5 stars
There’s no need arguing about who is one of the top five living blues guitarists. It’s Ronnie Earl and although not a household name, he has been hiding in plain sight for decades.
Praise like that doesn’t happen overnight; Earl has been a professional musician since the late 70s, joined the legendary Roomful of Blues in the 80s and released albums with an ever changing lineup of Broadcasters for the better part of 40 years. Along the way he has overcome hardships both personal (alcoholism, diabetes, depression) and professional (the usual record company issues) but kept at it. He doesn’t tour heavily anymore, which surely lowers his visibility on a blues scene that values that. But since hooking up with Canada’s Stony Plain label in 2003, he has found it a sympathetic outlet for a remarkably prolific run. This is his ninth effort in 20 years and 6th in the past six.
Earl is one of the few blues guitarists who favor instrumentals. Some albums have been entirely without words. And even though a handful of these tracks feature longtime vocalist Diane Blue, at least half let Earl sing through his soloing. Since he can call these selections anything, it’s worth noting that some are titled with contemporary socio-political names such as “Blues for George Floyd” and “Navajo Blues.” Another, with vocals, some of which are spoken by Earl, is dubbed “Black Lives Matter.” Additionally, he unearths “Lord Protect My Child,” a Dylan obscurity, given a gospel infused reading by Blue as Earl solos sweet and melancholy atop her verses. These also relate to the album’s Rise Up moniker.
The fifteen tracks that clock in at a bit-bursting 79 minutes, combine Earl’s January 2019 performances in a live pre-pandemic club with some from March 2020 at his home, without an audience, or at least applause. But whether he’s grooving in a jazzy shuffle for an original “Higher Love,” or covering under-the-radar gems such as Eddie Taylor’s “Big Time Playboy” and Jimmy Smith’s walking bass soul blues “Blues for J,” (not surprisingly featuring Dave Limina’s Smith-style organ) Earl’s taste and sure sense of dynamics pushes him above the thousands of other guitarists in his crowded field.
When he nails a slow vibe like the ten minute long “Blues for Lucky Peterson” or “Talking to Mr. Bromberg,” the listener gets a master class in how a guitar solo can ramp up then chill out with poise and grace. That’s especially the case on a cover of the well-known standard “In the Dark” (better known as “Romance in the Dark”) as Earl counters and enhances Blue’s soulful voice with his sharp yet beautifully rounded tone before taking off on a heartfelt solo that stays on low boil as he enunciates each note. It’s that ability to play soft and subtle or gradually twist into a searing, soaring crescendo that makes each guitar part so perfectly realized.
He gets down and dirty on the rugged, Texas styled Stevie Ray Vaughan peppy shuffle “Albert’s Stomp” and even lets Limina display his piano skills on the boogie-woogie “Mess Around,” the only track without a guitar solo.
But it’s the slower, moody blues, like a cover of Magic Sam’s “All Your Love,” that comprise the majority of the program and which best display Earl’s intense gifts. Listen as he climbs and lays back with a yin-yang dexterity that comes from decades of experience.
Those familiar with Earl’s jaw-dropping abilities will find Rise Up yet another example of just how talented he is. Anyone new to his name can start here and work back through a few dozen older albums, all of which will leave you understanding why blues fans hold Ronnie Earl in such high regard.