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Album Review

Other than jazz and classical, there are few other musical genres where vocals don't dominate, but Ronnie Earl sets out to prove that blues can be another. This entirely instrumental album never lags for a second of its hour-and-a-quarter playing time, all without a word being sung. Instead, Earl uses his magnificent guitar tone — a stinging combination of Santana, Hubert Sumlin, Mike Bloomfield, Otis Rush, and Albert King — and command of dynamics to wring more soul from his material than all but a handful of vocalists could ever achieve. He does this without the blinding speed or enhanced volume of the most popular blues six-stringers, but by the sheer intensity of his playing on these 11 tracks. Recording live in the studio with an invited audience (the session was also captured for a DVD release) provides the cliff-hanging excitement of a concert, allowing Earl, whose multiple health problems prevent him from touring, to tear it up in a more controlled setting. A few acoustic tracks such as "Katrina Blues" provide a changeup from the spark-shooting electric solos that dominate this dazzling performance. All Earl needs is a touch of reverb and bandmembers who understand when to lay low to let him soar. That's what happens during this session, cherry-picked from two days of concerts in April 2007. Drummer/producer Lorne Entress deserves recognition for a light touch on percussion and, perhaps more importantly, letting Earl stretch out for extended periods of whispering solos, as he does on the eight-minute Howlin' Wolf/Hubert Sumlin tribute "Wolf Dance." He opens up on the following slow blues of "Kay My Dear," laying back with smooth yet tensile jazzy licks over the faintest of backing at the song's start, only to gradually build to a dull roar by the track's end. Few guitarists could capture a listener's interest so confidently over longer tunes, but Earl pulls it off with an effortless precision that seems second nature. Six of the selections break the eight-minute mark, but none are needlessly drawn out with the directionless riffing so endemic to less inventive blues guitarists. The tempos, especially in the album's middle third, stay restrained and perhaps a few more upbeat tracks would have helped the disc's flow. Regardless, it's unlikely any listener will complain when Earl tears into the nearly ten-minute "Blues for Otis Rush," as he whips off a frenzy of soul-drenched notes that machine gun out of his fingers. The live environment adds thrilling high-wire tension to a guitarist who is already in the upper echelon of his peers.

Biography

Born: 10 March 1953 in Queens, New York, NY

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

One of the finest blues guitarists to emerge during the '80s, Ronnie Earl often straddled the line between blues and jazz, throwing in touches of soul and rock as well. His versatility made him one of the few blues guitarists capable of leading an almost entirely instrumental outfit, and his backing band the Broadcasters became one of the more respected...
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Hope Radio, Ronnie Earl
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