Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters – Mercy Me | Album Review

Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters – Mercy Me

Stony Plain Records SPCD1449

12 songs – 80 minutes

One of the most sensitive, stylish guitarists ever to play the blues, New England-based fret master Ronnie Earl outdoes himself on his latest disc, delivering an 80-minute, emotion-packed masterclass of soul- and jazz-infused pleasers that clearly demonstrate why critics and peers alike put him on a pedestal all his own.

A native New Yorker and son of Holocaust survivors who’s been dazzling fans for five decades, it’s hard to believe today that Ronnie’s a late bloomer to the instrument, but it’s true. He picked up the guitar for the first time in the early ‘70s after enrolling in Boston University and becoming enthralled with the local blues scene.

An exceptionally quick learner, he was born Ronald Earl Horvath and began his recording career alongside future Asleep at the Wheel guitarist Johnny Nicholas in 1977 shortly before becoming a founding member of Sugar Ray & the Bluetones before replacing Duke Robillard in another long-running Rhode Island band, Roomful of Blues. During his eight-year run with that group, he also recorded under his birth name with Windy City giants Sunnyland Slim and Big Walter Horton, and he adopted his stage name as a tribute to Earl Hooker.

A four-time Blues Music Association honoree as guitarist of the year and 19-time nominee, Earl released a couple of solo LPs before going on his own in 1987, and he’s been fronting his own band, the Broadcasters, ever since. The 28th album in his catalog — half of which have been released on the Stony Plain label, it’s a follow-up to his internationally acclaimed 2020 effort, Rise Up, which was recorded in his suburban Boston home while he was recovering from back surgery.

Ronnie’s backed here by his regular band, which includes Dave Limina on piano and Hammond B3 organ, Forrest Padgett on drums, Paul Kochanski on bass and vocals from the dynamic Diane Blue. The lineup also includes guest appearances from former Bluetones bandmate and perennial BMA nominee Anthony Geraci (keys), former Roomful and current Victor Wainwright & the Train baritone saxophonist Mark Earley with Mario Perrett on tenor sax, Peter Ward on guitar and Tess Ferraiolo on vocals.

Earl cuts like a knife with a stinging, single-note flourish before Diane joins in to deliver a seven-minute tribute to Muddy Waters by covering his 1953 classic, “Blow Wind Blow.” Delivered as a medium-paced shuffle, Limina and Geraci shine on the 88s before Ronnie sears, flying precisely across the strings for a dazzling, three-minute, seemingly effortless solo that’s minimal of notes but maximum in feel.

Lumina’s keys open before Ronnie pays homage to John Coltrane, another of his heroes, with a quiet, but stellar instrumental take of his 1963 opus, “Alabama,” the theme of which – racism – still infests the U.S. today. It flows sonically into a much brighter themed number, the slow-as-molasses, barebones acoustic original “Blues for Ruthie Foster,” which gives Ward plenty of space to shine, too, before yielding to “Soul Searching,” an R&B number that served as the title track of an album Earl released on Black Top in 1988.

“Blues for Duke Robillard,” another interesting original ballad, wends its way at a pleasant snail’s pace for almost eight minutes before things heat up with Diane at the mic to cover “Only You Know and I Know,” a hit for Dave Mason in 1970 and then an even bigger one for Delaney & Bonnie a year later. It features workouts from the horns before Earl takes charge as only he can.

Anthony and Ronnie shine six minutes of soulful light on a world plagued with troubles and offer space for introspection with a “A Prayer for Tomorrow,” a Geraci composition, before things come to a medium boil in “Dave’s Groove.” Co-written with Limina, it swings from the hip with another extended, never boring guitar solo – a feel that continues in Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” Blue’s vocals are as sweet as Earl’s fretwork in an unhurried 10-plus-minute workout with around-the-board solos.

Two more treasures — “Coal Train Blues,” a gentle shuffle, and “The Sun Shines Brightly,” an eight-minute ballad that borrows lyrically from Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying” – follow before Ronnie, Diane and Tess take you to church and deliver the Jackie Wilson standard, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” to close.

Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters have delivered sensational albums across the past 35 years, but it’s going to be extremely difficult to top this one. Pick this one up. You’ll be glad you did!

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