Ronnie Horvath didn’t start to play guitar until he was 20 years old. When he saw Muddy Waters play, the blues became his passion. It was Waters who changed his stage name to Ronnie Earl when he called him up on stage unable to remember his last name some years later and it stuck. In 1979, Earl joined Roomful of Blues, a band that Count Basie famously called the best little big band in the land. He held the guitar chair with the influential band until 1983 when he left to form the original version of his Broadcasters. Some version of that band has existed since.
Earl is unquestionably one of the finest blues guitarist alive, though he is a musician who transcends categories. Over the years the influence of jazz has become more conspicuous in his playing. His website lists Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Guitar Slim, Jimmy McGriff, Jimmy Smith, Grant Green, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery as influences. He has played with, among others, Rush, Big Walter Horton, Koko Taylor, John Nicholas and in Sugar Ray Norcia’s Blue Notes.
The disc at hand mixes traditional blues with guitar work that can only be described as transcendent. The opening cut "Love Love Love," sung by Dave Keller, who’s own Play for Love disc is recommended, sets the tone, combining straight-ahead, Chicago-style blues with Earl’s lyrics: "Love can change both hearts and minds/It can leave every war behind/Increase the peace in the Middle East/It isn't very hard to find." Not the most poetic perhaps, but effective enough to make the point. "Child of a Survivor" is sung by Kim Wilson, a friend of 35 years. Here Earl writes, "How can we understand the death of six million?/Or know the minds of those set free?/Liberation brought life and they all are inspiring./I’m a child of a survivor and the hope is rising."
Lyrics are not Ronnie Earl’s forte. He is a guitarist, first and foremost. He approaches much of what he does with the same spiritual sense that Carlos Santana brought to Love, Devotion, Surrender and Welcome and he has the incisive intensity and precision of Stevie Ray Vaughan. "SOS" is a deep blues instrumental workout on which his guitar is brilliantly augmented by Dave Limina’s mighty B3. The bridge here drops to a hush with beautifully and deliberately picked guitar lines over wonderful organ noodling, giving the song added drama. When it comes back full throttle to the theme, the guitar shimmers and explodes.
"Recovery Blues" is the centerpiece of the disc. Earl credits the "friends at Wednesday and Saturday meetings" as among his influences. This is a personal song as well as an inspired piece. Again Limina shines. And again, the introspective bridge works effectively, this time serving as a long fade. "Blues For Fathead," a tribute to David ‘Fathead’ Newman’s simple and efficient saxophone, has a classic organ combo groove with Lorne Entress’ drums and Jim Mouradian’s bass serving, as they do throughout, as essential foundation. Earl sounds like he’s having the time of his life here. "Blues For the South Side" is a tribute to the Windy City and his take on "Ain’t Nobody’s Business" is gorgeously rendered. The closing instrumental, "Pastorale" with its delicate lullaby quality, showcases Earl at his most introspective and expressive. This is why Ronnie Earl matters. This is the work of a master.
This latest installment from one of the most important guitarist in any genre of the past quarter century is inspired.