Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters Send Passionate Blues to Heal With ‘Mercy Me’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Guitar master Ronnie Earl and his long-time Broadcasters consistently deliver clean, soulful blues but their spiritual approach sets them apart from any band in the genre.  Mercy Me is Earl’s 14th album with Stony Plain and his 28th career album, most of which have featured various incarnations of his band, The Broadcasters. Earl, a four-time BMA winner as “Guitar Player of the Year,” has been dubbed by some as “The King of Tone” and by this writer “The John Coltrane of the Guitar,” as a way to recognize the deep intensity and spirituality of his playing. 

The former accolade references his “less is more” approach, focusing on just the right notes, never with a pedal or effect.  Others go even further. B.B. King referred to Ronnie as one of his sons, and fellow freelance writer Ron Weinstock has perhaps the best description, “{Ronnie} is a master of tonal dynamics, phrasing, and solo construction, Earl build solos like smoldering coals in a charcoal grill that burst into flames when fat drips down.”

It sounds rather cliché to say that it’s impossible for certain artists to make a ‘bad’ album but Earl, who consistently delivers, has one of the strongest ones here due to the mix of material, split between seven originals and five covers, the latter of which are all highly recognizable, traversing blues, jazz, R&B, and rock. Rendering this enticing mix are The BroadcastersDave Limina (piano and B3), Diane Blue (vocals), Forrest Padgett (drums), and Paul Kochanski (electric and upright bass). Guest musicians are Anthony Geraci (piano), Mark Earley (baritone sax), Mario Perrett (tenor sax), Peter Ward (guitar), and Tess Ferriaolo (vocals).

Let’s take the cover tunes first, maybe the best half dozen Earl has ever selected for an album in terms of breadth of styles. The album kicks off with Muddy Waters’ “Blow Wind Blow,” an opportunity for The Broadcasters and Geraci, to join Earl’s stinging guitar exchange with Ward and Blue’s soaring vocals. They next take a sharp turn from the rollicking to the solemn, in an inventive arrangement of Coltrane’s “Alabama,” which the saxophonist penned in commemoration of the infamous Birmingham church bombing. Both saxophonists assist Earl in a supportive role, as the guitarist takes the melody into his own spiritual realm, similar but different from Trane’s. This standout track alone makes this album essential.  

Dave Mason’s “Only You Know and I Know” is another surprising choice but Earl references the more famous Delaney & Bonnie version where Bonnie Bramlett sang the lead, here delivered by Diane Blue. Earl points to a story many years ago where the late Levon Helm was playing at B.B. King’s in Memphis and called both Earl and Bramlett to sit in with him for a few tunes. On the other hand, Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” covered by many but perhaps most notably by B.B. King, is a natural choice and a perfect one for the album’s theme of healing. The album concludes with a medley, first, a hopeful slow blues written by Diane Blue, “The Sun Shines Brightly” segueing to one Earl did as a nod to wife Donna, sending us out with the most upbeat tune of all, Jackie Wilson’s R&B classic, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” The horns play on seven of the dozen tunes and all of these covers excepting “Blow Wind Blow.”

It’s rather rare when Earl puts an acoustic tune on an album, but he teams with his friend, fellow guitarist Peter Ward in his penned “Blues for Ruthie Foster” in a guitar duet nod to the great singer Earl sat in with this past year. His lines in this one reference both Roberts – Johnson and Jr. Lockwood.  “Soul Searching” is an older tune, first recorded in 1988, but repurposed here with the horns that provide a solid underpinning, ensemble parts, and a solo from Perrett as well as Limina’s distinctive B3 that warp around Earl’s flowing, soaring solo. That leads to a smoldering, heartfelt tribute to Earl’s longtime friend Duke Robillard, presumably because Duke was recovering from a hand injury. (Robillard just released his own brilliant album, They Called It Rhythm & Blues, earlier this month covered on these pages). This extended tune features strong solos, especially Earl’s spine-tingling notes around the six-minute mark, with Limina’s solo and interplay with Earl matching the leader’s deep intensity.  Another in the deep, soulful blues vein is Earl’s tune co-written with pianist Geraci, as both shine in “A Prayer for Tomorrow.”  Arguably, no other artist playing today has this gutty instinctive feel for this kind of material that Earl and his cohorts do.  

“Dave’s Groove,” co-written with Limina, is a chance for the talented organist to stretch out while “Coal Train Blues,” may appear to be clever wordplay referencing the jazz great but is instead a fairly straight-forward blues instrumental that begins in Earl’s trademark style with he and Limina exchanging verses.  What sets it apart though are the series of changes from up-tempo to a slow simmer as both Limina on B3 and Geraci on piano fill in the spaces.  Blue’s “The Sun Shines Brightly” is also taken at a low simmer, a great example of this quote from writer Ted Drozdowski – “What Ronnie pulls from wood, wire, and old Fender amplifiers, isn’t so much the notes as the sound of the human heart beating with you, crying under the world’s weight or acknowledging the inevitability of another sunrise.”  The ‘sunrise” comes in the form of Tess Ferraiolo’s powerhouse vocal on the Wilson closer as the band with horns go full throttle in their ecstatic groove. 

No matter how many albums Ronnie Earl makes, he always delivers more than his fair share of gems. This one stands among his best; it is packed with many of them. 

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