The expressive power of the blues can be delivered in many glorious shapes and sizes. Last week, I reviewed a galvanizing concert by the Tedeschi Trucks Band lighting up the cavernous Orpheum Theatre in Boston. This week, I report on a more intimate blues show held on December 2nd with guitar maestro Ronnie Earl (“Earl”) and his supremely tight band, the Broadcasters (www.ronnieearl.com).
This soulful and brilliant performance took place within the welcoming space of The Center For The Arts located in Natick, MA. (“TCAN”; www.natickarts.org). TCAN is celebrating its 20th anniversary as a nonprofit community arts center and with its small seating capacity and intimate stage, it offers a special opportunity to hear artists up close and personal.
Executive Director David LaValley and his staff clearly care about the quality of the acoustics at TCAN. The building is a renovated firehouse with its original four-arched bays and large wooden firehouse doors dominating one side of its brick and cement floor structure. These architectural details and materials lend a crispness and clarity to the sound at TCAN. Instrumental lines and vocals are heard distinctly, along with a nice quality of warmth and airy decay that make the crisp strum of a guitar or the velvety thump of a Hammond B-3 organ note resonant and timbre rich.
The generous two-hour concert at TCAN by Earl and the Broadcasters ranged from every corner of blues heaven: from Sam Cooke and Gladys Knight classics to Earl’s vibrant originals. Many of these tunes were mined from the band’s two recent releases: 2016’s Maxwell Street [Stony Plain Records; www.stonyplainrecords.com] (dedicated to David Maxwell, a prodigious blues keyboard master and former member of the Broadcasters) and the band’s just-released The Luckiest Man [Stony Plain Records].
Both recordings deliver excellent sonics characterized by front row seat energy and electric presence. The dynamic contrasts and propulsion of the music is titanic, (if your audio system is up to the task!). The imaging on these two recordings is natural (within a wide, but not too deep, soundstage) with just a touch of treble glare to highest vocal reaches and cymbal splashes. Both recordings succeed in placing the listener in a front row seat to hear all the crackling energy, snap and drama from these consummate musicians in flight.
At their TCAN performance, Earl and the Broadcasters explored cuts from these two recent recordings with glee (to the raucous delight of the capacity crowd). The concert had the feel of an informal jam session. The eminent Earl (a three-time national Blues Award winner; see The Blues Foundation-www.blues.org) spent most of the concert plying his delectable guitar sitting amongst the audience and calling out in loving banter the next number to the Broadcasters on stage: Dave Limina on Hammond B-3 organ and piano; Paul Kochanski on electric bass; Forrest Padgett on drums and Diane Blue on vocals.
The band took off with fiery resolve on several upbeat blues instrumentals that shimmered and shook. Limina’s keyboard solos tumbled with delectable bluesy feel, bursts of percussive grooves and burbling octave leaps. Earl joined Limina with his crisp stutter-stepping guitar solos filled with sprite plucks, moments of breathy silence and tumultuous rolls and trills. Earl has this spellbinding talent to go from a tender silence (and the most fragile of guitar phrases and high holds) to furious blues runs in the next inspired moment. His solos had everyone in the audience in hushed concentration. They followed Earl’s path from the lightest firefly high notes (bent and half-struck with his fleshy touch) to his unfurling crashing surf of surging chords.
“Southside Stomp,” (taken from Luckiest Man) took off with relentless flow and bounce, propelled by Padgett’s concussive hits of his bass drum, punctual snare and closed high-hat. Bassist Kochanski followed Padgett’s lead with big flourishes while Earle spun his delectable soft string stings. They followed with a boogie-driven version of Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” with Padgett’s deft snare packing a punctual punch to lead Limina on a swanking walking blues keyboard solo with two-fisted power chords and runs. [For a nice recorded slice of this same rough and tumble walking blues action, take a listen to the rattling “Howlin Blues” or the slow-brewing “So Many Roads” from Luckiest Man and enjoy Earl’s expressive soloing with light punctuations and crackling bent notes brewing next to Limina’s keyboard spills and Blue’s intoxicating vocals].
Vocalists have always shared a special bond with Earl on his recordings and in concert. One of Earl’s long time vocal companions is the soulful singer, Sugar Ray Norcia. If you are a vinyl fan, grab a copy of one of Earl’s early LPs on the great blues label of the 1980’s, Antones’ Records, entitled I Like It When It Rains, and enjoy the camaraderie between Earl and his sterling cast of musicians, including the soulful Norcia; harp master Jerry Portnoy; keyboard wizard Ron Levy and Mudcat Ward holding down the bass. This early recording showcases Earl’s amazing dexterity moving from National Steel guitar to searing electric and brings back memories of Earl’s jam sessions at the old Johnny D’s Club in Somerville, MA. on those magical sweaty nights when many of these master musicians teamed up in glorious partnership with the fiery Earl.
In sweet continuity with the past, Norcia also makes a guest appearance on Earl and the Broadcasters’ latest recording, Luckiest Man, and tangles in slow tumble with Earl on their “Long Lost Conversation.” This highlight is a stretched-out glowing session of passion and lightness with Norcia’s deep soulful voice (and harp) dueling with Earl’s limpid guitar strikes.
Earl and the Broadcasters now also share beautiful synergy with their steadfast vocalist, Diane Blue, whose vocal presence at their TCAN performance lifted the proceedings to expressive heights. Blue brought her rich and glowing voice to illuminate a number of gems taken from the band’s Maxwell Street recording. She cooked with charisma on Gladys Knight’s “Imagination,” a soulful boogie that had her magnetic vocals flowing effortlessly over exuberant drum and bass grooves laid down by Padgett and Kochanski (with Kochanski taking a bass solo filled with pumping buoyant lines).
Shifting gears, Blue sang with intense unfurling passion on Sam Cooke’s “Its Been A Long Time Coming” and Deadric Malone’s “As The Years Go Passing By.”
On both of these spirited ballads, Blue and Earl were in hypnotic sync. Blue sang with gospel urgency (with gorgeous deep tones and churning passion) while Earl let silences speak between his soft guitar lines that mixed rock, blues and jazz rifts into spirited proclamations of elegy and hope.
The band rode out on the coattails of the classic Lou Rawls’ swing, “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” delivering their full-throttled grooves to ecstatic hand claps and applause. Blue’s sassy vocals soared next to Earle’s jazzy guitar riffs while the band’s fierce groove gave a final radiant salute to the blues – unbound and soaring in their collective hands.