Stony Plain Records SPCD 1385
13 songs – 80 minutes
Perennial award nominee guitar maestro Ronnie Earl delivers a soulful, poignant, but upbeat tribute to his late father, Akos, with this release, his ninth on the Stony Plain imprint, and he cuts some new ground in the process: Not only does he add a horn section for the first time in years, but he also calls upon two singers who are on the cusp of super-stardom themselves – Diane Blue and Michael Ledbetter — to provide all the vocals.
New Englander Blue possesses a smoky set of pipes and has worked with Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, Big Jack Johnson and Irma Thomas, and tours nationally while Ledbetter formerly sang opera professionally for several years in Italy before returning to Chicago and immersing himself in the blues tradition laid down by one of his grandparents, first-generation superstar Leadbelly. He’s been a featured part of the Nick Moss Band for the past four years, both as a vocalist and burgeoning guitar player.
Providing their usual rock-solid comfort zone are Ronnie’s band of more than 25 years – drummer Lorne Entress, bassist Jim Mouradian and keyboard master Dave Limina. They’re joined by Mario Perrett and Scott Shetler on saxes and a trio of guest guitarists – Nicholas Tabarias, Tim O’Connor and Larry Lusignan.
A deeply spiritual man after emerging from years of personal torment as well as being one of the most polished guitarists on the planet, Earl chose this collection of ten covers and three originals carefully. At first glance, they might appear random. But look closer and you’ll see that the subject of each deals with a rite of passage between a father and son while delineating the stages of grief following the elder’s passing.
Ronnie’s at his bluesy best as he dips into the songbook of Otis Rush, one of his major influences, for the opening track, “It Takes Time.” Ledbetter comes roaring out of the gate with the lines “I know what it means to be alone/Today your life is pretty, baby/Tomorrow you could be crying.” No truer words could be sung when applied to the loss of a parent. Earl’s mid-song solo soars as his strings emit emotion. The original, “Higher Love,” which follows, features a percussive horn line, a Hammond B-3 solo and a jazz feel as Ledbetter and Blue trade verses about the relationship between parent and child that often isn’t realized until it’s too late.
The two songs that follow — a slow blues riff on Rush’s “Right Place Wrong Time” and a churning cover of Magic Sam’s “What Have I Done Wrong,” which features Blue – fit together like hand and glove to describe the dark years that many of us endure before we finally come to the point of understanding and accept a parent for who he or she is after years of discord. Ronnie expresses that moment through an unlikely source: Van McCoy, who fueled the ‘70s with “The Hustle.” Aided by Ledbetter’s melismic vocal, he reinterprets the disco king’s “Giving Up” into a perfectly chosen blues burner.
Fat’s Domino’s “Every Night About This Time” is up next. Written about a cheating woman, it could reveal that Ronnie’s dad was – in the words of St. Louis Jimmy Oden – going down slow. A plaintive guitar line signals the truth in the album’s title tune, “Father’s Day,” which delivers the message: “Can you make peace?/Can you be the generous one?/Can you forgive?/Can you cancel all the debt?” In Earl’s case, the answer is yes because they make peace at song’s end.
The B.B. King tune, “I Need You So Bad,” signals that death is near, followed by an oath of loyalty as Diane covers Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care Of You.” Both she and Michael provide the message as Ronnie lets go in the uptempo original, “Follow Your Heart,” which states: “Do what you’ve got to do.” Earl slows the tempo slightly as he provides an instrumental cover of the Art Blakey hit “Moanin’,” aided by the horns, to his grief before finishing the disc with another Magic Sam standard, “All Your Love,” and Rev. Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord.”
On the surface, Father’s Day is a tour de force of great guitar play, outstanding songs, strong supporting musicians and seamless production. On that level alone, Ronnie has produced a masterpiece that’s rocketed to the top of my personal favorites in his catalog. On a deeper level, having been in his position of loss myself, it means much, much more. Pick it up today. You won’t be disappointed.