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Music Review: Ronnie Earl – Soul Searching

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Ronnie Earl’s career has followed a curious arc. He took over when Duke Robillard left Roomful Of Blues, a pretty high-profile gig for a relative newcomer, then followed up by forming The Broadcasters, a band that, at different times, included two of the finest blues singers around.

Since then Earl has struggled with personal demons, giving up touring altogether and turning to all-instrumental recordings that, despite his astonishing prowess on the guitar, occasionally become somewhat self-indulgent.

Soul Searching, originally released in 1988, finds him backing a tight working band with finely focused results. With only a handful of instrumentals, The Broadcasters deliver a scorching set that remembers the value of rhythmic urgency.

Earl’s trademark is dynamics. Extreme dynamics, from blistering barrages of notes to whisper-quiet noodlings that virtually vanish into the background. It’s an effective approach in a live setting – Earl is a six-string wizard, capable of astonishing nuance and subtlety, and sudden drops in volume can draw an audience in, creating a shared intimacy between performer and audience. On recordings, though, it can be distracting to the point of annoying. Here he employs the technique on a couple of tunes but for the most part keeps things rollicking and rolling along.

Broadcasters present for these sessions include vocalist Darrell Nulisch and Jerry Portnoy, former Muddy Waters sideman who’s since become Eric Clapton’s go-to-guy for harmonica. Rhythm chores are handled by drummer Per Hanson and bassist Steve Gomes, with Ron Levy contributing keys and guest Duke Robillard trading riffs with Ronnie on a pair. The great Kaz Kazinoff handles all the horn parts.

The disc is aptly named, as blue-eyed soul plays as big a part here as blues. Nulisch, at this point fresh from an apprenticeship with Anson Funderburgh’s Rockets, is a fine singer who favors an understated, dignified delivery perfectly suited to tunes like “Ships Passing In The Night” and “You’re The One,” yet who can also swing like mad through driving shuffles like Johnny Shines’ “Evening Sun.” Portnoy gets to stretch out on “Jerry Jumps In,” but for the most part it’s ensemble work in support of Earl’s exceptional prowess.

Bonus cuts include two live tracks, previously released on a Black Top Live At Tipitina’s collection that remains out of print. Both feature the same band and show them just as tight on stage as in the studio.

One of Ronnie’s very best, it’s nice to have this one back in print … highly recommended!

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About John Taylor

  • nice review. Ronnie’s one of those player who is really, really deserving of wider recognition.

    my favorite record is I Like It When It Rains.

  • I haven’t heard as many Earl titles but the recent (I think ’07) Hope Radio is wonderful.