Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters
Just For Today
Stony Plain Records, 2013
Ronnie Earl, the blues guitarist probably most acclaimed for expressive control of his instrument, marks the 25th year with his Broadcasters with a new live album. Just For Today, recorded at three Massachusetts venues, shows much of the unit’s scope as the combo runs through a set of shuffles, slow blues, jazz, Broadcasters music, and soul ballads.
Soul and tone, two qualities often identified in Earl’s music, are abundantly present in every note played. Consider Earl’s composition “Blues For Celie.” On this slow blues, he takes a languid first few choruses, outlining ideas in chords and single notes with subtle tonal shifts. The number has no head to speak of, but Earl maintains thematic unity as the lines flow, and explores every variation in intensity, from whisper-quiet musings to a stirring climax.
“The Big Train” simply cooks. Earl’s lead work alternates short, vocal phrases with longer lines that spill across measures, employing hammered-on double-stops and soaring, bent notes. Dave Limina’s Hammond B3 fills out the sound with a great touch and splendid tone, whether he is comping behind Earl or delivering an ovation-worthy chord solo. The tune hangs on a simple riff, and is taken at an unhurried pace, yet the way Lorne Entress (drums) and Jim Mouradian (bass) and play together creates a perfect, unstoppable momentum. It’s hard to tell whether the false ending was planned, or if Ronnie was digging the groove so much that, in the heat of the moment, he felt compelled to lead the combo through another round.
Earl takes a couple of fine choruses on “Vernice’s Boogie,” but this rollicking piano boogie-woogie is Limina’s show. An old Earl favorite, the hard-driving “Robert Nighthawk Stomp,” also features strong 88s, as well as an ear-grabbing, very neatly phrased Earl solo that very briefly quotes “Smokestack Lightnin’.” Limina’s extended introduction to “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” is likewise played on the ivories, though he shifts to the organ once Earl steps in to outline his take on the melody, coaxing from his guitar the sweetest lines imaginable.
The moving reading of John Coltrane’s “Equinox” suggests that it is a favorite of the band: Limina and Earl turn in lovely solos over a subdued, Latin-inspired groove. “Pastorale,” “Miracle,” and “Heart Of Glass,” round out the setlist. These three songs, examples of what I earlier called Broadcasters music, are not formally blues in their chord structure; their melodic content is likewise more sophisticated than traditional blues tends to be. Not exactly jazz, and surely not rock, they are akin to tone poems that give Earl a chance to express himself in different contexts.
“Blues For Hubert Sumlin” is a purely wonderful slow blues with a long, hushed middle section that gives Earl’s bent notes, conversational phrasing, and skittering lines center stage, before bringing things to a boil. In the end, it matters little that the song offers nothing that much recalls Hubert’s highly idiosyncratic playing. Similarly, on “Rush Hour,” a thrilling, mid-tempo box shuffle intended as a tribute to Otis Rush, Earl’s ideas sound more like his own, a few backward rakes across the strings notwithstanding, than they do the great southpaw’s. The band’s powerful swagger on “Jukein’” inspires Earl and Limina to special heights. To these ears, it is the best track here for spirit, rhythmic creativity, and tonal exploration. That intensity carries over into the oft-covered Etta James classic “I’d Rather Go Blind,” here sung creditably by Diane Blue. Earl does a superb, Steve Cropper-esque job of gilding his solid rhythm arpeggios with interesting fills, and his lead break is a model of tone and taste, saying a great deal with very simple materials.
Such communication is the essence of this kind of music, and no one does it better than Ronnie Earl. The current Broadcasters lineup, consisting of veterans who have played together for some time, is confident and comfortable, yet such is their skill and heart that they never sound dispassionate or uninspired. Long instrumental programs are not everyone’s cup of tea, and even Earl’s most ardent fans have sometimes, probably justifiably, felt that they have heard him do it all before. But Just For Today sustains an exceptionally high level of engagement, excitement, and emotion. Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters have produced an anniversary gift that is little short of amazing.
Review copy provided by Mark Pucci Media