Recording information: Wellspring Sound, Acton, MA.
Photographer: Tom Hazeltine.
Blues guitarist Ronnie Earl has been making records since the end of the '70s, and he has a long legacy of fine picking to live up to, but it's not hard to wonder how much the man still has to say musically in a career that's spanned five decades. Released in 2015, Father's Day shows that Earl is not only still a master of the six-string, he still has a few new tricks up his sleeve. Father's Day gets its title from a song dealing with Earl's long estrangement from his father and their belated reconciliation, and it's a personal piece that gives Earl plenty of room to stretch out on spare, jazzy figures while the lyrics weigh the emotional hardships that come with family strife. Between the title cut and his two other originals on the album, "Higher Love" and "Follow Your Heart," Earl seems to be in a contemplative mood, pondering the nature of the heart and soul, and it suits him well, influencing his choice of covers like Bobby "Blue" Bland's "I'll Take Care of You" and Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey's famed spiritual "Precious Lord." Father's Day boasts a richer sound than Earl's last several albums, with a horn section bringing muscle to several cuts, Dave Limina's Hammond B-3 adding some welcome texture, and vocalists Diane Blue and Michael Ledbetter belting it out with plenty of soul power. Of course, Ronnie Earl himself is the headliner on Father's Day, and his guitar playing is what fans come to hear, and on that score this finds his chops and his imagination are both doing well indeed. While Earl's technique is excellent as he shows off his killer tone, splendid string bends, and bold flurries of notes, he also has the taste to hold back rather than drowning the songs in excess soloing, and once again shows off a jazzy sensibility for making sense of the space around the notes rather than randomly filling every nook and cranny. Father's Day is more conceptually bold and contemplative than many of Ronnie Earl's previous albums, and musically the work should satisfy blues fans of all stripes while also attracting more thoughtful listeners brought in by this album's clever, philosophical vantage point. ~ Mark Deming