Blues guitarist Ronnie Earl sizzles on the eclectic “Mercy Me”
Ronnie Earl and the broadcasters
4 out of 5 stars
There aren’t many contemporary blues artists who can boast a catalog of 27 albums. Ronnie Earl, whose first solo recording arrived in 1983, produced an average of one album a year on various labels. But even with all that quantity, Earl’s quality control never wavered. Now firmly established on the Stony Plain Canadian imprint since 2003, he has aligned himself with a company that supports his recordings without worrying about hits or chart placement.
This allowed Earl to stretch without fear of being altered, which he enjoys on this album number 28 and his 14th for Stony Plain. He uses this freedom by covering unusual tracks ranging from Dave Mason’s soulful rocker “Only You Know and I Know” to John Coltrane’s dreamy, almost ghostly “Alabama.” This indicates not only Earl’s varied influences, but also his creative eclecticism.
Since Earl doesn’t sing (powerful vocalist Diane Blue handles a few tracks) or write songs with lyrics (all but one of these compositions are instrumentals following basic blues structures), he concentrates on his playing which exudes as much emotion as any singer. Whether unplugged for the moving ‘Blues for Ruthie Foster’ or electric in the painful slow burn of ‘Blues for Duke Robillard’, Earl is a solo masterclass in restraint, complexity and sophistication.
It kicks off with Muddy Waters’ tough Chicago shuffle “Blow Wind Blow” as Blue handles vocal duties and continues in that groove for the throbbing jazzy strut under “Dave’s Groove” (Dave Limina is the longtime sideman). Earl’s date) with a sizzling tenor sax section. . He refers to this tempo in “Coal Train Blues” before switching to a more meditative approach halfway through the song. Jackie Wilson’s oft-repeated soul/gospel classic “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” features Blue with a horn section that enhances seven of the twelve selections.
As a producer, Earl apparently doesn’t believe in editing these performances. Four tracks span over seven minutes, with his cover of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love” standard stretching to nearly eleven. This provides plenty of room for soloing, something any guitarist would expect from a mate like Earl. Thankfully, instead of the shredding shenanigans that other bluesmen resort to, his style of staccato, short bursts of crisp notes never, very rarely, overstays his welcome.
There are faint echoes of Santana’s sweet sustain shimmering through the poignant instrumental “Soul Searching”, an Earl original. This leaves room for keyboard, tenor, and baritone sax solos to ease some of the load of guitarist fretwork. But there are plenty, specifically fueling the slow blues “A Prayer for Tomorrow,” written by guest pianist Anthony Geraci. Earl closes the track with his tender but tense six-string after the keyboards take turns soloing.
pity me is yet another solid notch in the veteran guitarist’s ever-expanding discography. At nearly an hour and twenty minutes, it’s also generous, showing the diversity and cohesion of Earl and his band on this impressive and delightfully crafted effort.
Photo by Tom Hazeltine