Photograph by Bill Burdick
One more time for the inimitable Mr. Earl
By Greg Cahill
A few years ago, when the Fabulous Thunderbirds were at the height of their popularity (am I dating myself here?), I caught T-Bird axeslinger Jimmie Vaughan (brother of the late Stevie Ray) and Roomful of Blues guitarist Ronnie Earl in a friendly cutting session onstage at Wolfgang's in San Francisco (now I really am dating myself). The T-birds were in town while promoting their blockbuster 1986 blues album Tuff Enuff.
There you have it: 1986.
The room was filled with rabid Roomful fans, including lots of boozy Providence, Rhode Island, ex-pats eager to dance the sweltering night away to the sounds of the hometown heroes. Earl had invited his old pal on stage and Vaughan was only too happy to share some of his newfound fame. Happy, that is, until Earl blew him off stage with one torrent after another of stinging steely riffs.
Vaughan slunk away, leaving Earl looking a bit chagrined that his mighty command of the medium had proved too much for one of Texas' favorite sons. Twenty years later, Vaughan has a modest solo career, the T-Birds have slipped into blues obscurity, as has Roomful of Blues, but Ronnie Earl has battled alcoholism and depression to craft a reputation as a formidable bluesman with occasional side forays into jazz.
The recently released The Best of Ronnie Earl: Heart and Soul (Shout Factory), Earl's first multi-label career retrospective, traces that path from 1983's grunge fest Smokin', on the Black Top label, to 2005's The Duke Meets the Earl, a long-awaited blues summit with fellow blues guitarist Duke Robillard, with stopovers on the Telarc, Verve, and Stony Plains labels.
As a package, this is one of the year's best blues albums--every track is infused with blues history and soulful arrangements and supported by a crack band. It kicks off with the swinging "You Give Me Nothing But the Blues," from Earl's sophomore release They Call Me Mr. Earl, grabs you by the back of the neck with the trashy "Ronnie Johnnie" and caresses you with the soulfully jazzy "A Soul's That's Been Abused," a mid-career ballad drawn from Howlin' Wolf alum and guitar great Hubert Sumlin's 1986 Blues Party. Earl even teams up with T-Bird frontman Kim Wilson for the steamy blues lament "Abandoned."
Feel good. Feel bad. But look no further for a smokin' blues CD to spice up your next backyard BBQ party.
Also recommended: The Best of Guitar Shorty: The Long and Short of It; and The Best of Anson Funderburgh & the Rockers, both on Shout Factory.
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