Ronnie Earl has seen his share of troubles over the years. He’s suffered from both addiction and depression, and these days he doesn’t tour, preferring instead to lead a simple, spiritual life filled with love and hope. Most of his recent recordings have been primarily instrumental affairs – he doesn’t sing, and as a songwriter, his lyrics have never been terribly strong. He’s a guitarist of exceptional prowess, though, able to keep extended jams interesting through the sheer artistry and intensity of his fretwork. Earl clearly finds solace in his music, and is determined to Spread The Love with his latest outing for venerable Stony Plain Records.
Spread The Love contains fourteen tracks, most written by Earl, with one each from drummer Lorne Entress and Dave Limina (piano and B3). Covers include Albert Collins’ “Backstroke” (a tune Ronnie cut once before for his Soul Searching disc), Kenny Burrell’s “Chitlins Con Carne” (a favorite of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan), and a stunning take on Duke Pearson’s “Christo Redentor.”
Earl firmly believes in the healing power of music, hence titles like “Happy,” “Miracle,” and “Eleventh Step To Heaven.” He also has a penchant for writing tribute tunes – witness “Blues For Dr. Donna,” “Skyman” (dedicated to Duane Allman), “Blues For Slim” (Guitar Slim, aka Eddie Jones), “Ethan’s Song,” and “Blues For Bill,” a relatively rare workout on acoustic guitar. While his music is always firmly rooted in the blues, jazz and gospel inform Earl’s work in equal measure – Spread The Love is more of an instrumental collection than a blues disc, but Earl’s vision and conviction hold it all together.
And while cynics might see his message of love and forgiveness as somewhat simplistic, there’s no denying the power and beauty of Earl’s guitar work. Whether he’s delivering crunching chords or ripping out dazzling flurries with dizzying ease, he exhibits absolute mastery of his instrument. The current version of The Broadcasters, together for a number of years now, are equally adept, following Earl’s lead with exceptionally supple support. Bassist Jim Mouradian and drummer Lorne Entress are telepathically tight, and Dave Limina’s work on the B3 is exemplary, with a rich, churchy sound perfectly in keeping with Earl’s instrumental extrapolations – moody and evocative yet invariably uplifting, even on the quieter, meditative numbers.
Earl’s last few releases have occasionally been bogged down by excessive earnestness; stellar playing, but not much fun to listen to. And he’s tended to overwork dynamics, with whisper-quiet passages that distracted from the music’s flow. No such problems here, though – his music remains intensely personal, but gone is the sense that it’s a tool through which he’s working out his demons. He’s not exactly the life of the party, but there’s a feeling here that he’s once again finding, if not joy, at least a sense of fulfillment in his music. Spread The Love may lean a bit more to contemplative ruminations rather than blazing blues workouts, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying listen. And Earl remains, hands down, one of the finest guitarists around, endlessly inventive and possessed of breathtaking technical ability that never gets in the way of sheer feel – he can dazzle indeed, but it’s always about the emotional core of the song, not the notes themselves.
Spread The Love may well be Earl’s best yet. Highly recommended!