I'm a failed guitarist who has always been fascinated by the power of the instrument and the virtuosos who creatively command those six strings. I've had many favorite players over the years -- Satriani, Vai, Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray, Duane Allman, and so many more -- but I think I've finally settled the debate in my mind once and for all: Ronnie Earl is my favorite guitar player. There are countless players who do incredible things with the instrument and take it places beyond the limits of my imagination and he can do that but it's not what makes him special.
In addition to being a failed guitarist, I went through a very brief phase as a failed actor. In one of our exercises, our instructor gave us each an emotion and asked us to act out that emotion. This sadistic man asked me to portray happy; I was at a loss. What separates him from every guitarist I know is his ability to not only play at a technical proficiency on par with anyone who has ever touched the instrument but the unique gift he has to speak without words. He has a song called "Happy" from his last studio album, the magnificent Spread The Love, and he did in notes and tone what I couldn't in that exercise: he created the sound of happiness in music and transmitted it to me, coaxing a smile while expanding my understanding of the emotion. That's what Ronnie Earl can do. He succeeds where I and so many others fail with a unique and powerful ability to create a feeling and command it to rise in the ears and, more importantly, the heart of his listeners. That is at the core of the meaning and purpose of art.
He has experienced brokenness in profound and varied ways and he plays from a deep place, much of his work residing within the blues idiom but he often chooses to make his notes a light in dark places rather than the other way around. When he takes us to places of hurt and pain, he does so with compassion and empathy rather than bitterness and hurt- just one more remarkable gift this man possesses as an artist and something that sets him apart from other greats.
Being able to craft, compose, and execute masterworks in the studio is a significant achievement but being able to do it on command with no safety net is something even more remarkable and as the title Just For Today implies, this is a live album from this inspired and inspiring master guitarist. He performs the magical act of capturing the soul by conjuring the spirits in his playing whether performing own compositions or interpreting the work of others.
Earl not only conjures the heart of the deepest emotions, he channels the spirit of other musicians who inspire him. His "Blues For Hubert Sumlin" and "Rush Hour" find him speaking the language of Hubert and Otis Rush -- two blues icons -- without resorting to mimicry and he does it again on "Robert Nighthawk's Stomp."
One of the standouts on this evening also happens to be among my favorites from Spread The Love, the stirring "Miracle." This is a textbook example of his ability to take a concept or idea and bring it to life in song. His playing -- and that of the fantastic musicians backing him -- summon the power and create the transformational experience that are the definition of the titular phrase.
He also performs "Equinox," a composition by John Coltrane from Coltrane's Sound. I am not well versed in the music or life of the saxophone great but what I know of him, I can't help but think he'd be proud of what Earl has done here. I also wonder what these two might have done together if their paths had crossed. Coltrane's passion to innovate and the deep spiritual power of his work would meshed well with Earl's versatility, virtuosity, and sense of spirit.
I still admire those guitarists I mentioned and a great many more -- including Earl's favorite player, Nick Moss -- but Just For Today is the latest sterling testament to the beauty of Ronnie Earl the man and musician.