Despite the best of intentions all around, if Ronnie Earl weren’t such a blazingly brilliant guitarist, this would be a terrible album.
Earl, an anomaly in the music business (revered for the intensity of his performances, he has since given up touring and rarely appears live) brings a deep sense of spirituality to his work that can, at times, render it more like a therapeutic exercise than a musical statement. But then he’ll back it up with an absolutely dazzling burst of notes that shows both an uncanny facility on the frets and a seemingly limitless musical imagination.
Earl’s been around for quite a while, joining the famed Roomful Of Blues on the departure of founding guitarist Duke Robillard. He subsequently toured the world, led his own Broadcasters, and even played with Santana for a spell, before recurrent health problems sidelined him for a number of years. A non-singer, he’s since built a career based on primarily instrumental recordings exploring blues, jazz, and gospel music.
Living In The Light, his fifth outing on Canada’s Stony Plain label, continues the trend. Earl leads a superlative core band through a varied program, with guests contributing vocals to a handful of the tunes. Earl wrote the bulk of the material, and that’s the problem. Having recovered from both illness and addiction, he’s so intent on expressing his thanks, the project has the feel of an obligatory milestone in a twelve-step recovery program. And for all the talent on display, it’s about as much fun.
Take, for instance, the leadoff track, Earl’s own “Love Love Love.” With lyrics even more mundane than the simplistic title, it features a mid-song break that seems to have little to do with the song’s structure or feel. In contrast, "S.O.S.,” the disc’s second track, again begins with blistering guitar, but features yet another of Earl’s trademark mid-song dips into near-inaudibility. He’s big on dynamics, a crucial element in a live performance but tiresome when employed time after time on disc.
Much more successful is an acoustic cover of Robert Jr. Lockwood’s “Take A Little Walk With me,” featuring the great Kim Wilson on harmonica and vocals. Played straight, it’s just a fine slice of blues, refreshingly free of pretension. And Earl keeps it on track with “River Charles Blues,” a fine twelve-bar workout.
A cover of Bob Dylan’s “What Can I Do For You,” though, complete with heavenly choir, suffers from Earl’s undeniably earnest sincerity. A song of devotion, it’s not one that non-believers will be able to sit comfortably through. Elsewhere Earl’s intentions are equally obvious, from his own “Recovery Blues” (more extreme dynamics) to “Child Of A Survivor,” a blues, no less, for the Jewish people and their centuries of suffering. And “Donna Lee,” an acoustic tribute to his wife, once again wallows in Earl’s need to confess his sins and express his gratitude, a tendency that, despite another fine performance by Wilson, renders the song too personal.
Still, while the disc has its faults there’s no denying Earl’s astonishing ferocity when he unleashes his prowess as a guitarist. Here’s hoping he finishes that recovery program, gets all those thank you’s to God and his wife out of the way, and gets back to playing with a bit of dirt on his fingers. It’s long been held that the blues is ‘devil’s music,’ and Earl’s attempts to render them holy come across as self-righteousness when not downright offensive.
We wish you well, Mr. Earl. But please, get over it!