Ronnie Earl's lengthy career as one of the most dangerous blues guitarists alive has been filled with both tragedy and triumph. He's been candid about the personal demons that dogged him, grateful for the second chance that some never had, and willing to help anyone traversing the road he went down for too long a stretch. His music has changed and matured, just as surely as he has, and in recent years he's been riding the crest of a wave that borders blues and jazz with ease. Deciding to take his Broadcasters on the road and into the studio as an all-instrumental outfit years back was a decision both applauded and criticized, but Earl met the challenge and managed some startling results as his bulging catalog readily shows.
Now with the Telarc label, Ronnie called some friends together and descended on Bearsville Studios in upstate New York in an attempt to recreate the sounds that emanated from the Delmark label long ago when Junior Wells cut "Southside Blues Jam" and "Hoodoo Man Blues" with the help of Buddy Guy, Otis Spann, Fred Below, and others. The friends that congregate on this disc; James Cotton, Levon Helm, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, Dave Maxwell, Irma Thomas, and Kim Wilson, among them, add to the proceedings making for an 'Upstate Blues Jam' if you will. Jimmy Mouradian handles the bass duties with Mudcat Ward taking over on two tracks while Paul Marrochello and Tim O'Connor, two more friends, help with rhythm guitar on one cut.
Johnson kickstarts the disc with a stirring rendition of Magic Sam's "All Your Love" and invokes Maghett's spirit as he launches into "Easy Baby' without hesitation. Earl's fusillades from the sidelines surround Luther's vocal here and on Eddie Taylor's "Bad Boy," and Dave Maxwell's piano adds more flavor. Kim Wilson handles the vocals on five while his harp is punctuated by James Cotton's on three, including Cotton's own "One More Mile." Perhaps one of the most-often recorded tracks in blues, "Rock Me Baby," takes on a new life with Kim in the driver's seat. Howlin' Wolf is called upon to cast his shadow on "No More," as both Wilson and Cotton trade some fine harp, while Walter Horton seems to be all over "Mighty Fine Boogie," with the tandem sounding much like what Horton and Carey Bell did for the Alligator label. Kim also handles Little Walter's "Last Night" and "Blue And Lonesome," proving his voice is as strong a weapon as his gripping harmonica is. Irma Thomas dropped in and contributed two stunning vocals. The first is a medley of "I'll Take Care Of You," which Bobby Bland cut for Duke Records, and the Doc Pomus gem, "Lonely Avenue," which was handled by Ray Charles. Irma's voice is simply beautiful on the close to eight minute track with Earl's trademark, soul-drenched guitar brewing underneath. "New Vietnam Blues" is a moving tribute to the veterans Ronnie has come to know over the years, and again, in Irma Thomas' capable hands, it comes off without a hitch. That leaves three instrumental cuts on this disc and all are a pleasure. "Twenty-five Days" is perhaps closest to the feel they were after on this slow blues laced with restraint. As Ronnie rips out quiet, but ever-so-soulful licks from his vintage Stratocaster, Maxwell retaliates by calling on Otis Spann and delivers some gutwrenching 88 key work, as he does on Spann's own "Marie," in his tribute to a highly influential master. All that remains is the minute-and-a-half long "Looking Good," which Ronnie took by himself in a nod to one of his musical soulmates, Magic Sam.
While the intent here was to recreate some of the magic of those impromptu Delmark sessions, Ronnie Earl and his cohorts instead bring new meaning to a recorded blues jam as they manage their own genius at every turn, and sound tough while respectful throughout. This isn't a Ronnie Earl CD at all, as Ted Drozdowski points out in the liner notes, it's an effort put forth by all who participated, and the outcome is as fresh and unrehearsed as were those classic vinyl platters of years gone by. Running just under 70 minutes in length, this could be a top pick of 2001, as it includes some downright thrilling music by Ronnie Earl and Friends, all carrying a torch in honor of their fallen heroes. Strongly recommended!
This review is copyright © 2001 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.