Saturday, May 25, 2013

Blues U Can Use Part 2: Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters' Just For Today

In 1967, while many of their friends were playing in rock bands, Rhode Island natives Duke Robillard and Al Copley formed, A Roomful of Blues. It was a seven-member ensemble that played Chicago-style blues with a heavy dose of jump-blues, r & b and rock ‘n roll that was entertaining and fun. But after a series of gigs in New England, the band got noticed by songwriter, Doc Pomus who helped them launch a working career in music with their first record deal in 1977 on the adventurous label, Island. Duke Robillard left the group in 1980 to pursue a solo career. Guitarist, Ronnie Earl, replaced him. Fast-forward to 2013, and the two have just released new solo records on Stony Plain, the fine Canadian label established by Holger Peterson.

On May 16th I wrote here about Robillard’s latest release called, Independently Blue. Today it’s Just For Today (Stony Plain) by Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. In 1980, Ronnie Earl (Horvath) took over for Duke Robillard in A Roomful of Blues. He was a young New Yorker filling the shoes of a fine guitarist. Five years earlier, Earl attended Boston University and took up the instrument after seeing Muddy Waters in concert. He developed his style through careful study of blues music with a pilgrimage to Chicago at the invitation of blues singer, Koko Taylor. He later spent quality time in Texas with Jimmy Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, a band Duke Robillard did time with before going solo.

I first heard Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, (named after the Fender instrument of 1950) in 1993. Still River (Audioquest) was a blues instrumental recording beautifully showcasing the band’s cohesive feel on every track. By this time, Earl had fully developed his individual sound and style, distinguished by a sharp rhythm technique balanced by a soulful tone. His subsequent albums did not disappoint in spite of the fact that a lead singer wasn’t a part of the band’s music. Personally, Earl also battled depression and alcohol abuse that seriously affected his health in 1998. It was discovered that he had diabetes and Earl decided to take control of his life and his music.

In 2000 he released Healing Time (Telarc Blues), a decidedly spiritual album that was less about flashy playing and more about creating a deeper, emotional response. “I’m trying to get people to feel the music, not just hear it and be awed by the technique.” Earl’s subsequent recordings bare this out. In 2004 he released Now My Soul (Stony Plain) that he dedicated to God and to “celebrate his sobriety of 15 years.” Earl’s music was now reflecting an artist working hard to make every day count and to play blues and jazz that reached his audience on a deeper level. So it comes as no surprise to see Just For Today, a live album that reflects a prolific and spiritually driven band at selected locations in Massachusetts. (Earl gave up touring in 1998 due to health reasons). Just For Today has a lot of music: just under 80 minutes or the equivalent of a 2-record set, so it is best heard in small doses to fully appreciate the ebbs and flows of the tunes and the variety with which Earl plays. Only one vocal appears on the album, the classic “I’d Rather Go Blind” sung by Diane Blue, a Boston native who makes a guest appearance. She does a first-rate job of the Etta James classic first released in 1967. She sings it with great, heartfelt emotion and the band is right there with her every step of the way. It would be a great tribute to the band and Blue if they cut an album in the near future.

Ronnie Earl
The album, or performance recording if you will, opens with a great Texas shuffle called, “The Big Train,” it showcases the entire band: Dave Limina, Hammond B3, Jim Mouradian, bass and Lorne Entress, drums. A slow number, “Blues For Celie,” follows this up. This song showcases Earl’s dynamic soloing. He loves to keep the musical lines simple and accessible. Trouble is, there are too many songs like this on the record thus diminishing the impact of Earl’s inventive playing. “Heart of Glass” is nice tune, in a major key, but “Blues For Celie” shadows it. Nevertheless, the song has an interesting arrangement with enough color to keep it going.

Another track that highlights the album is “Vernice’s Boogie” featuring Dave Limina on piano (which equals in power Blue's performance of “I’d Rather Go Blind”). the band really kicks on Limina’s song making it an irresistible boogie stomp instrumental. One of Earl’s favorite jazz songs is “Equinox” by John Coltrane. It was first recorded on Deep River (Audioquest) in 1993 and probably has been a part of the set list ever since. On this version, Earl offers up the kind of musical dynamics that define his style of playing. He can get really quiet, barely touching the guitar at one point only to raise the tension with a climactic release. It’s clearly a song he has absorbed into his DNA.

Another stand out track is the arrangement of the blues classic, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” written in 1922. Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Jimmy Witherspoon and many more blues singers have recorded it. This is one of the finest instrumental versions I've ever heard. Earl’s musical ideas flow nicely chorus after chorus. Just For Today captures Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters in a very good place. If you ever have the chance to experience them in person, do take it. I had my one and only chance over 10 years ago at a rare appearance at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. Otherwise, this album is an excellent substitute.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

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