Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters,
Living in the Light
(Stony Plain, 2009)

Duke Robillard's Jumpin' Blues Revue,
Stomp! The Blues Tonight
(Stony Plain, 2009)

Two new releases from a couple of veteran blues players are as dissimilar in character as any two blues discs could be. Duke Robillard looks back to the loose-limbed, good-time vibe of jump blues -- arguably, rock 'n' roll's closest ancestor -- while Ronnie Earl sounds like a man relieved that, thanks to a Higher Power, he's still alive.

If Stomp! The Blues Tonight celebrates the pleasures of the flesh, Living in the Light is awash in the cleansed spirit. Even without reading the promotional material, which refers delicately to Earl's having been "sidelined by health problems," one would be able to deduce that personal demons have been met and conquered. Blues isn't ordinarily thought of as the Lord's music -- traditionally, it's been associated with the opposition -- but Earl says, "I see my music as a way to have a deeper relationship with God and bring healing and love to the people who listen to it."

These are both top-tier recordings, as one would expect from able musicians and ace guitarists who have been recording and performing for decades. One is not better than the other; they're just different. Which one you want to hear depends on what kind of mood you're in and what you wish music to do for you at a given moment.

Maybe it's just the onset of summer after an especially frigid Midwestern winter, but I've been listening mostly to Robillard, who in this warm and amiable outing revives classics from jump blues' mid-century golden age and contributes some compositions of his own that fit comfortably alongside the older material. Besides putting down a wonderfully fluid electric-guitar sound, he's a fully satisfying vocalist. Joined by a hard-driving horn section, the band swings joyously and manages what could easily pass for a live sound. Then, the man knows his way around the studio; after all, this is Robillard's 16th disc for Stony Plain alone, and that doesn't count the ones he cut earlier with Roomful of Blues and on his own for other labels.

More than happily, Sunny Crownover is here to step up front to deliver a few of the vocals, most delightfully the salacious, calculating "Million Dollar Secret," originally cut by jazz-blues legend Helen Humes in 1950. (While you're at it, don't miss her recent acoustic CD under the rubric Sunny & Her Joy Boys, one of whom is Robillard himself. I reviewed it here on 16 May 2009.)

Though very much a band album, Light sounds -- or at least feels -- more austere. Earl's jazz-inflected, rock-riffing electric guitar is at the center of each arrangement, with Dave Limina's keyboards (especially the Hammond B3) providing some serious atmospherics.

If Robillard offers up titles like "Jumpin' on the Bone" and "Playful Baby," Earl has "S.O.S." and "Recovery Blues." The sincerity and sobriety, in other words, are palpable. This is definitely not party time. It's Sunday morning as opposed to Robillard's Saturday night. But Earl's music succeeds at what it sets out to do, which is to move the listener at the level one is more likely to anticipate from gospel than from blues. If Robillard gets your feet dancing, Earl puts your soul at rest. In his treatment, Robert Lockwood Jr.'s classic "Take a Little Walk With Me" comes across as a blues Pilgrim's Progress.

review by
Jerome Clark

4 July 2009

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