By Mark Saleski
It was many years ago, in the early 1990's, that I had my first encounter with Ronnie Earl
. He was playing at Raoul's Roadside Attraction in Portland, Maine. I had never heard of him before but a friend of mine was sure that a good time would follow. The start of the show was an eye-opener. Everybody is tuning up, seemingly in their own little worlds, and then Earl counts off with his foot and boom!
, they're off. Seriously, I thought he was going to start without them, but the Broadcasters were right there...and so were we.
I had never seen anybody play like Ronnie Earl before. The guitar seemed to be an extension his inner thoughts. Emotions were on display via angst-ridden bent notes and furious clusters of joy. There are players that seem to get lost in their technique. For Ronnie Earl, emotion is
During the intervening years, Mr. Earl has overcome some very serious personal issues, using the spiritual power of music to shine a light on the good in the world. If that reads like a too-happy, feelgood synopsis of man makes good," then allow yourself an open-hearted listen to Spread The Love
and you'll see what I'm getting at.
To my ears, this record is going all the way back to the days of I Like It When It Rains
and Surrounded By Love
. There are stomping blues tunes like the opening Backstroke,"in which Earl does Albert Collins proud by trading licks with Dave Limina's Hammond B3a swingin' take on Kenny Burrell's Chittlins Con Carne," and the killer groove of the Earl/Limina original Happy."
Where Ronnie Earl shines, where his emotion really comes though, are on the slow burners. On Blues For Dr. Donna," his subtle technique is on full display, with just a slightly-reverbed clean guitar sound, accompanied only by Jim Mouradian on bass. While Ronnie surely has chops to burn (I saw him give a lecture once where his switched between the styles of T-Bone Walker and Ronnie Earl, while simultaneously explaining what he was doing), it's his smoldering passion that drips from his strings. Songs like Miracle," the ethereal Skyman," and the gospel-shaded Cristo Redentor" seem to lay out variations of Earl's closely-held thankfulness for life's offerings. It's not often that a musician can wring so much hidden meaning from a set of chords (just two chords sometimes!), but it's even more rare for that to be done without vocals.
For those looking for more traditional blues fare (I almost used the word regular," but there's nothing regular about Mr. Earl), check out Tommy's Midnight Blues," on which Earl applies some serious torque. The man is easily one of the most economical players in modern blues, and yet the intensity on display will definitely leave you thinking that he doesn't need to play more notes. No sir, just the right
notes will do. The same can be said for the closing Blues For Bill." It's just Ronnie and his acoustic guitar. You hardly need more than that.
About ten years after that night in Portland, I was waiting in line at a bagel shop in Burlington, Massachusetts. I was very hungry and was more than slightly annoyed at the guy in the line in front of me, who was slowing down the proceedings by asking if they had any bagels that had just come out of the oven. C'mon man, I'm hungry!, was the thought. He finishes his order and then turns around. Yeah, it was Ronnie Earl. I told him I was a big fan. He said that he liked my glasses (I was in my nerdy, rectangular phase). I kind of wanted to ask him how he'd been, but he was out the door before I could get up the nerve. I guess there have been some bad times since then, but Spread The Love
tells me that these days, he's doing just fine.