Guitarist Ronnie Earl doesn’t get around much anymore due to health problems, but that hasn’t prevented him from performing in concert now and then. Hope Radio, a studio session recorded in front of a small crowd, finds Earl and his Broadcasters in a strictly instrumental mode, soulfully paying homage to the likes of Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin and Jimmy McGriff.
Earl, who replaced Duke Robillard in Roomful of Blues nearly 30 years ago, certainly knows his way around a fretboard. But taste, not technique, is his strong suit; it’s what sets his playing apart and explains his appeal to blues, R&B and jazz fans alike. Several tunes on Hope Radio, including “Blues for the West Side,” “I Am With You” and “Blues for Otis Rush,” are textbook examples of how to use shifts in dynamics to sustain a guitar instrumental track that clocks in at eight minutes or more. (The slightly shorter, minor-key gem “Kay My Dear” qualifies, too).
While many themes here will be familiar to Earl fans, the live setting inspires fresh performances that point to some of the guitarist’s favorite things, whether it’s a smoking McGriff-like organ groove, some Santana-tinted funk or clipped, Sumlin-inspired single-note runs. (If “Wolf Dance” doesn’t make you want to revisit Sumlin’s recordings with Howlin’ Wolf, nothing will.) Earl puts down his Strat long enough to play “Katrina Blues,” a country-blues lament performed solo, but the evocative, subtly shaded collaborations are the chief reason to tune into Hope Radio.