Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters new disc Good News, on Stony Plain Records, is out today. Ronnie Earl won Best Instrumentalist Guitar at the 2014 Blues Music Awards in Memphis on May 8, 2014 – pretty good for a guy who started playing guitar at the age of 20. His musical life was changed by Muddy Waters and eventually so was his name. Apparently Muddy could never remember Ronnie’s original surname “Horvath.” Ronnie changed his last name to “Earl” as a tribute to the great Earl Hooker. Ronnie Earl joined Roomful Of Blues in 1979, made a few solo albums in the 80’s and went solo full time with the Broadcasters in 1988. The band has changed lineups over the years, but the lineup on Good News, featuring Jimmy Mouradian on bass, Dave Limina on organ, and Lorne Entress on drums, has been playing together for over a decade and it shows.
Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters recorded their eighth Stony Plain album, Good News, over December 20th & 21st, 2013 at Wellspring Studios in Acton, MA. They invited some friends to join including vocalist Diane Blue, Detroit guitarist Nicholas Tabarias, and guitarist Zach Zunis of the Janiva Magness band. Together, they turned out a soulful, spiritual, uplifting record, just as the title suggests. Good News starts off fast, rolling south on the tracks toward Mississippi. “I Met Her On That Train” recalls “Mystery Train” but mixes in a dash of Tennessee Two-stepping Folsom Prison boogie. Dave Limina digs deep, taking us to the clubs on Saturday and church on Sunday. Guests Zach Zunis takes the first guitar solo of the disc – a classy move by Mr. Earl – and keeps us moving southbound with some countrified licks. Nicholas Tabarias takes the second guitar solo; playing licks that would make Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore smile, and the inimitable Mr. Earl takes the third solo of the disc. All the solos add to the song, but Ronnie Earl’s exquisite touch on rhythm guitar makes the song. He plucks out a lone bass note followed by fast moving chorded riffs on the high strings that keep the tune moving like a steam train fireman stoking the coal.
The title Good News celebrates Sam Cooke’s album, Ain’t That Good News, released 50 years ago in 1964. After getting arrested down South in 1963, Cooke was inspired to write the song, “Change is Gonna Come.” Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters also pay tribute by covering the song on Good News. They invited vocalist Diane Blue to put her stamp on the track and she sings it with power and conviction. As the song progresses and picks up energy, Mr. Earl punctuates Diane Blue’s pleas with aggressively strummed outbursts that capture the defiance of the civil rights movement and the urgency that comes from knowing you might have to bring on the change yourself. This is a powerful rendition of “Change Is Gonna Come” and is not to be missed.
On “Blues for Henry,” a song co-written with Hubert Sumlin, Mr. Earl leans into the bent notes and squeezes them for all they’re worth. He exercises perfect control without sounding like he’s trying. He wrenches your guts like your grandma died and makes you smile like you just found a puppy. He is precise even when he seems on the edge of becoming unglued. Listening to him play can be an exercise in frustration for guitar players because he is just that good. “In The Wee Hours” is another song full of Earlisms on guitar that will make you shake your head. Zach Zunis admirably sets up with master, playing a superb solo of his own but Mr. Earl now owns this Junior Wells classic. He captured in music the dreamy, transitory consciousness found in the wee hours as sleep beckons and the mind struggles to resist the call.
“Time To Remember” features delicate piano and captivating organ playing from Dave Limina. “Marje’s Melody” is a melancholy guitar workout with Nicholas Tabarias again sitting in and taking the second solo. “Puddin’ Pie” brings up the energy level with a strutting shuffle, as does the Gospel march of the title track “Good News.” The album closes with “Runnin’ In Peace” featuring words written by The band’s friend Ilana Katz Katz who was only 50 feet from the first Boston marathon bombing on April 15, 2013. Ilana and Ronnie Earl wrote the song together and Diane Blue again put her heart into the words as vocalist as she pleads for a higher power to save us from ourselves. Ronnie’s guitar has an edgier tone with a little more gain than usual and his torrid playing captures the heartbreak, confusion, and sorrow of the Boston Marathon bombing. It is beautiful music born of an ugly tragedy.
I’ve spent a lot of time with this disc since it came in the mail. It arrived the night before Mr. Earl’s scheduled performance at the Western Maryland Blues Festival. I waited for the three hour ride to check it out and I was only marginally disappointed. I’m not a big fan of female vocalists – it’s a character flaw, I know – and the albums featured vocalist is female. The Good News is that I’ve since gotten over it with this new disc. The amazing news was Mr. Earl’s Saturday evening performance. It was stunning, it was sublime; it was any superlative you can imagine. He is one with his instrument and coveys his heart and soul through his playing. He is pure inspiration. Since then, Good News has been played a dozen times or more. I’ve lost count. I hear the notes and see Mr. Earl in my mind’s eye, on stage, hands moving in tandem, face contorted by ecstatic conscription, kneeling in genuflection to the higher power of the music that seems to flow through him. I feel that joy and hear it all throughout Good News. Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters has captured its spirit and presented it to you as the Good News you’ve been waiting for. Wait no longer. And if this band turns up anywhere within a day’s drive make sure you get there.
Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters have some shows coming up this summer:
|Sat June 28||Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz||Saratoga Springs, NY||1:20pm|
|Thur July 3||Payomet Performing Arts||Truro, MA||8:00pm|
|Sat July 26||PA Blues Festival||Palmerton, PA||6:15pm|
|Sat Aug 2||Jonathan’s||Ogunquit, ME||9:00pm|
|Fri Aug 15||Evanston Space||Chicago, IL||8:00pm|
|Sat Sept 6||The Knickerbocker||Westerly, RI||8:00pm|
|Fri Sept 12||Natick Center for the Arts||Natick, MA||8:00pm|
|Fri Oct. 17||The Newton Theater||Newton, NJ||8:00pm|