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.