Considering how Southern-fried he sounds, particularly with a Texas flavor, it still surprises me to note guitarist Ronnie Earl has made Massachusetts his own epicenter of modern blues. While it might be hard to view Boston in the same light as Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, or Austin, Earl has become pretty much a one-man amalgam of modern American blues. The really good news is that folks on the Atlantic coast can be taken to Earl’s guitar crossroads anytime The Broadcasters are on the road. Of course, when Earl and his band issue a new CD, everyone else can get hooked on Boston blues as well.
For example, Earl’s new Just for Today is a compilation of sets recorded live in 2012 at the Massachusetts-based Regent Theatre, The Center for Arts in Natick, and The Narrows Center for the Arts. Celebrating the 25th year of various ensembles called The Broadcasters, the new program is reminiscent of Earl’s early solo albums that mainly consisted of instrumentals. Here, 12 of the 13 tracks on Just for Today are also instrumentals, the one exception being “I’d Rather Go Blind” featuring the soulful vocals of Diane Blue.
Soulful is, in fact, a good term to describe the full concert performed by Earl (who just celebrated his 60th birthday), Lorne Entress (drums), Jim Mouradian (bass), and the oft-spotlighted Dave Limina on piano and Hammond B3. As usual with Broadcaster releases, the band’s inspirations are evident in the tributes on the album. The shuffle “Rush Hour” is a nod to Otis Rush where the band is joined by guitarist Nicholas Tabarias. Tips to deceased past guitar masters include “Blues for Hubert Sumlin” and “Robert Nighthawk Stomp.” There’s the Latin-flavored “Equinox,” the John Coltrane composition re-imagined in a very Carlos Santana groove.
Back in the ’70s, Earl spent some time hanging around with the Texas crowd of Kim Wilson and Jimmie Vaughan of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, so it shouldn’t be surprising Just for Today opens with the powerful “The Big Train” which is almost pure Stevie Ray Vaughan. Some listeners may recall the string-bending musical praying of Roy Buchanan, especially his “The Messiah Will Come Again,” and will hear those soaring tones in the similarly spiritual “Miracle” and “Heart of Glass.” Still, while Earl’s guitar is center stage for perhaps 80% of the show, keyboardist Limina gets to shine on roadhouse numbers like “Vernice’s Boogie” and the opening bars of Billie Holiday’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” where Limina and the boys get downright ragtime.
In short, the 13 numbers run a healthy range of the blues with an emphasis on musicianship and searing arias sung without words. What most distinguishes this disc is the intimate feel of every track. If the listener hasn’t enjoyed The Broadcasters in a small venue somewhere, this is what it is like. While his bandmates stir the pot behind him, Earl is talking directly to you, using six strings to prove the blues ain’t always about how bad things can get, but instead how transcendent music can be. If this one doesn’t strike at least one chord inside you, it’s time to engrave your headstone.