His is hardly a household name, but most blues fans will have encountered Ronnie Earl by now. As an instrumental purist who seldom tours, though, it seems unlikely his profile will extend much beyond the blue end of the spectrum anytime soon.
Which is a pity. Celebrating the twenty-fifth year of Earl's Broadcasters, Just For Today, Earl's seventh recording for Edmonton-based Stony Plain records, is so much more than a blues album. True, there are a bunch of blues songs, along with a bit of jazz and a healthy dose of gospel. But Earl's playing is of a level and intensity and sheer spirituality that his music transcends genre, becoming something more, something utterly sublime.
Earl has struggled with personal demons in his life, at times reflected in his music -some of his earlier efforts felt a bit too much like therapeutic exercises. Here it's obvious that his faith has pulled him through the darkness into light. His spiritual side is evident in every note; the blues might be the devil's music, but in Earl's hands they're heavenly, impeccably articulated, exquisitely nuanced, and infused not with pain but with profound, life-affirming joy.
Recorded live at three separate venues in his home state of Massachusetts (again, Earl doesn't venture far afield these days), Just For Today is an absolutely breathtaking display of technical virtuosity - Earl is both blazingly fast and intricately expressive. He's always been fond of extreme dynamics, frequently descending to whisper-quiet sections that find him teasing and toying with delicate single-note leads before roaring back to a furious and frenzied climax. He's matched step-for-step by the current incarnation of the Broadcasters, with Dave Limina on piano and Hammond B3, drummer Lorne Entress, and bassist Jim Mouradian, all three locked intuitively in supple and sympathetic support that perfectly mirrors Earl's spontaneous musical explorations, dancing delicately when he does, and thundering like a runaway freight when the time is right.
Earl doesn't so much play the blues as he does explore them. "The Big Train," kicking things off, shows he can get as nasty as anyone, though his tone is never less than immaculately clean. "Blues For Celie" slowly builds in intensity through nine-and-a-half minutes of blues guitar ecstasy, a perfect example of Earl's whisper-to-a-roar approach. There's a tribute to Earl's mentor, Otis Rush, with the aptly named "Rush Hour," as well as "Blues For Hubert Sumlin" and "Robert Nighthawk Stomp." Limina steps up front for his own "Vernice's Boogie," a rollicking piano romp, and there's also the hard-driving "Jukin'" and an extended, leisurely "Ain't Nobody's Business" to round out the blues section of the programme.
Also on the playlist, though, are "Miracle," with its nod to the late Roy Buchanan, the quietly contemplative "Heart Of Glass," and a stunning take on John Coltrane's "Equinox." The only vocal on the disc comes courtesy of guest Diane Blue, who does a fine, gospel-fired version of "I'd Rather Go Blind," while Earl's own shimmering, exquisitely lovely "Pastorale" wraps things up nicely.
The only other guest appearance comes courtesy of Nicholas Tabarias, who adds guitar to "Rush Hour" and "Jukin.'" Yet, despite unfailingly brilliant contributions throughout from all concerned, it's Earl's show all the way. He's been called 'Mr. Intensity,' and it's an apt description indeed. He's endlessly inventive and utterly riveting - capable of absolutely dazzling complexity, yet able to mesmerize with a single, lovingly caressed note, snarling ferociously one minute and coaxing an angel's tears from his guitar the next.
Earl has long been acknowledged as one of the finest blues guitarists around, and Just For Today proves yet again that he truly deserves his place at the pinnacle. But where the vast majority of blues dwell in devilish territory - Saturday night, so to speak - Earl's are all about the ecstasy, the rapture, the Sunday Morning side of the equation. As such, they're both sublime and a revelation. Absolutely and unquestionably brilliant!