Let’s establish two things from the start. Ronnie Earl is the King of Tone and, secondly, Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters have never made a bad album in recent history. This may even be one of the best. Let guest David Bromberg, master guitarist and musicologist without many peers, explain, “Ronnie Earl is an incredible musician. He plays with more emotion than anyone else who plays blues, or really anything today, and he gets me every time I hear him. The Broadcasters are the quality of musicians you would expect Ronnie to be playing with -solid, tasteful, and moving. You can’t do better than that.” This writer will add that in live performance there have only been three guitarists that have induced chills – Muddy Waters, Duane Allman, and Ronnie Earl. Yes, the guitarist dubbed “The John Coltrane of Guitar” by yours truly is in that exalted company.
The core group of Broadcasters return with Dave Limina on keyboards, Diane Blue on vocals, Paul Kochanski on bass and Forrest Padgett on drums. They are joined by frequent collaborators Anthony Geraci (piano) and Peter Ward (guitar) as well as newcomers Mario Perrett (tenor sax), Scott Shetler (baritone sax), Larry Luisgan (guitar), Michaël Rush (bass) and Scott Mac Dougal (guitar). The very special guests, in addition to Bromberg, are Kim Wilson on harp and vocals and Greg Piccolo on tenor sax. It’s all summarized by Earl this way, “This is a band album – a community of souls with some guests, some new directions and good old down home blues with Kim Wilson, David Bromberg, and Greg Piccolo.”
We are indebted to David Bromberg for providing the liners and pardon us for paraphrasing about some of the tracks. This is, as Earl said, an album with some new directions including soul, emotive duets, and a mix of originals and blues classics. Earl’s guitar is usually the focal point, but relative to many of his albums, his solos are economical, not lengthy. Just the same, he can make a killer statement with his tone and just a few notes. The other striking element is that vocalist Diane Blue gets better of each release and is certainly at her best here. The special guest contributions are also standout, as opposed to many albums where the artist just reaches for the name, who, in turn. Just blends in.
Okay, let’s go. The opener “Brand New Me,” (Theresa Bell, Jerry Butler, Kenny Gamble) finds the Broadcasters in (yes) a Motown groove with Limina at the piano and Mario Perrett on tenor while Blue sings And Ronnie plays effortlessly. They then channel Howlin’ Wolf’s “Baby How Long” with Wilson on vocals and harp, locked into telepathic interplay with Earl, who keeps pushing the intensity. “Drown in My Own Tears” (Henry Glover) has strong contributions from Limina on both piano and B3 with Earl and Piccolo trading phrases. The guitar work is signature Earl and it’s a standout track.
The midsection of the album is especially strong, displaying some unique combinations. “Alexis’ Song, penned by Earl and Piccolo is a contemplative duet between the two of them with Piccolo carrying the melody, and Earl, rather unusually, just chording. “The Sweetest Man,” written by Earl, Limina, and blue, each of whom take a turn and Dave offering up some fine piano. Then there’s perhaps the centerpiece of the album, with Bromberg on acoustic and vocal and Ronnie on electric for a relaxed, in fact, the slowest tempo this writer has ever heard for the oft-covered Dylan classic, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” It’s the essence of two masters at their best.
<P>At this point we’ve already heard more music and spanned more emotional territory than most albums from other artists but it’s only the halfway point. Ronnie Earl does not make short albums. Piccolo returns, trading solos with Earl, interspersed with Blue’s vocal, and horn ensemble playing on a remake of Earl’s “A Soul That’s Been Abused.” Blue shows her soul chops on Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together” and Wilson returns for another blues classic, Little Walter’s “Blues with a Feeling.” Earl is accompanied by the guitars of Peter Ward and Scott MacDougal. Earl features his rhythm section and guest g and Rush on his own “T-Bone Stomp.” (No, it’s not “T-Bone Shuffle” even though it is indeed a shuffle groove.
On “Wolf Song” Earl uses some of the phrases from “Smokestack Lightning” but doesn’t stay there long. This is the essence of the “down home blues” referenced in his quote as Wilson’s harp and Geraci’s piano create a bustling juke joint feel. “Peace of Mind “ (Earl and Steve Gomes) hearkens back to the organ trio sounds of Grant Green but has Blue delivering one of his best vocals on the album. It’s immensely soulful and serves as a nice lead-in to the vintage Philly soul of Gamble and Huff’s “Drowning in a Sea of Love,” which has one of Earl’s most memorable solos. Ronnie Earl is deeply spiritual and instills his band with that sensibility, resulting in her in the closing “Bringing Light (In a Dark Time),” written by Kochanski and Blue, who delivers yet another masterful vocal.
Yes, this a band album rather than one filled with epic Ronnie Earl solos. It shows how tight and versatile the Broadcasters are and why Ronnie Earl and his band are several notches above, in fact on their own plane, relative to today’s other blues bands, more than anything else, it’s the deep emotions and spirituality that set them apart.