Reviews: Mississippi Sheiks, Ronnie Earl

Posted on 9/02/2010 by Silver Michaels

by Silver Michaels

Various Artists

The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Concert (DVD)

Black Hen

To me, one of the great joys about blues music is that there's always a steady stream of historians, musicologists and musicians who (at their core) are still huge fans of the music and its history. The Mississippi Sheiks played a huge role in the development and popularization of country/blues music in the 1930s; the 2009 release, "Things About Coming My Way," did a fine job of paying tribute to this seminal act. Set for a September 21 release is this DVD companion to that album, documenting the concert event that was part of the tribute and celebration, and it's a fine and worthy addition to any blues fan's library... and I'd go so far as to call it "near crucial" for music historians.

The concept of the tribute is classic; five outstanding musicians from the Vancouver area form the "house band" for the concert, and a bevy of guest musicians provide flair, color and some surprisingly contemporary arrangements of the material. The house band is comprised of Matt Chamberlain on drums and percussion, Steve Dawson on guitars, pedal steel and banjo, Wayne Horvitz on organ, piano, pump organ and Wurlitzer, Daniel Lapp on fiddle, trumpet, mandolin and tuba and Keith Lowe on bass. Dawson, who is also the head of Black Hen Music, was the organizer of the show, and it's obvious throughout that this was a labor of love and respect. The DVD opens with a nice segment featuring interviews with Dawson and quite a few of the folks who played the concert; they speak of the legacy of the Sheiks ("Muddy Waters once said he'd walk ten miles to see them play") and their great influence on the popular music of their day. Dawson also mentions that they were one of, if not THE, best selling acts of their era, and how he was saddened to think that their legacy had been almost forgotten... and as such, the two projects (CD and DVD) were born.

The house band is superb, with double-plus kudos going to Daniel Lapp. The eclectic array of instruments he plays adds a ton to the tone and textures of these interpretations; his trumpet playing, for example, runs the gamut from bold and assertive to an almost pleading quality; he wrings a similar range of emotions from his fiddle as well. The parade of guest artists who front the band for a song each is as impressive as it is diverse; from the deservedly high-profile (John Hammond, Geoff Muldaur) to a few names right on the fringe of blues stardom (Alvin Youngblood Hart, Colin James) right through to a healthy share of artists outside of the pure blues genre, some of them extremely interesting choices (Van Dyke Parks, Robin Holcomb, Dave Alvin). Among the best angles of the concert's concept is that each of the guest artists obviously had a hand in the stylistic approaches to their own contributions. That can be dangerous, with the potential of coming across as a hodge podge of styles lacking cohesiveness, but for the most part, that is avoided here (which is yet another tribute to both the excellence of the house band and the wisdom of having a single unit backing each of the guests). The presentation and pacing of the show are also well thought out. A nice visual touch is the projecting of images of the old classic record label designs that the Sheiks used to record for (Vocalion, Okey and Columbia, if I remember correctly), and on the part of the label that lists the song and artist, the artists performing each tribute are listed.

Fittingly, the concert both begins and ends with the Sheiks' signature song, "Sitting On Top Of The World." In the opening piece, an instrumental version of the song plays while a narrative about the band is spoken over the top of it; it's a suitable and properly reverential way to begin the show. The end performance of the song features every single performer who loaned their talents to this event, and it's an impressive display of both concept and talent.

With the wide variety of styles presented here, it's unlikely that too many folks will enjoy every single piece on the album, but I also can't imagine that anybody would find any single performance so objectionable that they'd want to skip past it. My own personal favorites are from The Sojourners, Colin James, Alvin Youngblood Hart and (of course) John Hammond. The Sojourners add a superb gospel styling to "Sweet Maggie;" it's just plain good to remember every now and again how beautiful three human voices can sound together. Colin James contributes both guitar and vocal excellence to "Keep On Trying," accompanied on harp by John Hammond, and the result leaves the viewer hoping for some future collaborations between the pair. Alvin Youngblood Hart offers a comical anecdote about "Livin' In A Strain," then delivers a real knockout version of the song on lap steel guitar. John Hammond contributes "Kind Treatment," and the title alone is almost as much a tribute to Hammond as to the Sheiks; as always, he gives a spirited and genuinely affectionate performance... and almost deflects the appreciation of the crowd as he lauds the truly excellent musicians behind him. Hammond is and has always been a real class act.

This one is five stars in my book. It doesn't matter if you approach this from a historical or strictly entertainment point of view - the concert and this DVD archive of this important event are both winners, start to finish.

Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters

Spread The Love

Stony Plain

Okay, my little "point of reference" disclaimer real quick - Ronnie Earl is (and has been for a long time) one of my two or three favorite guitarists in all of blues, and I hold him to a VERY high standard. That said, I did a quick count, and I believe this to be his umpteenth album... and he's still batting 1.000 with me; not a stinker in the bunch!

Spread The Love is an all instrumental album built around a classic blues quartet lineup - Ronnie on guitar, Dave Limina on piano and Hammond B3, Jim Mouradian on bass and Lorne Entress on drums. Throughout the album, the main focus is usually on the interplay between Earl's strings and Limina's keys. The chemistry is superb throughout; so good, in fact, that the absence of vocals doesn't tarnish the album a bit, nor does it hinder the listener's ability to draw pictures from these songs. I'd go so far as to say that Limina deserves some serious consideration for a "keyboard player of the year" nomination for his work here.

Of course, Earl's guitar is at the forefront most of the time, and not a single note disappointed these ears. As is usually the case, his playing is way on the high end of soulful with a healthy dose of jazz and just a touch of good funk mixed in. At his best, he's also one of the most melodic guitarists I've found in any genre, and he's certainly darn near his best on this release. The disc opens with "Backstroke," a really nice swing number that sets the tone of the album with it's exceptional interplay between guitar and keyboard. This is about the most energetic cut on the album, if you consider "energy" and "uptempo" to be synonymous - it's a fine opening piece and grabs the listener's attention right away.

The disc really kicks into high gear on the emotion scale with the next few cuts. "Blues For Dr. Donna," a tribute to his wife, is one of those beautiful, slow aching blues pieces - the melody is simple but elegant and leaves a lot of room for some of Earl's most introspective playing on the album. The effect is haunting and long-lasting, and while I'd be hard pressed to name a true favorite on this release, this would probably come closest. He follows this masterwork with two well-chosen covers - well chosen both for their status as classics and for showing the diversity he's capable of. Kenny Burrell's "Chitlins Con Carne" is given a brilliant treatment here. The precision work between Earl and Limina gives us a serious dose of subtle, slinky funk, the sort of piece where you hope the pretty blonde will get out on the dance floor and shake her shoulders. This is followed with perhaps the album's most surprising selection, the classic "Christo Redentor." That's almost a risky pick to me - Charlie Musselwhite's version is so ingrained into my and many psyches - but Earl handles the task admirably, and while his rendition won't drive Musselwhite's classic from my mind, it is certainly a worthy and solid interpretation.

Tracks 5, 6 and 7 almost feel like a trilogy, both sonically and spiritually. Respectively entitled "Happy," "Patience" and "Miracle," these three pieces taken together are a nice microcosm of Earl's heart, soul and philosophy. "Happy" showcases Limina in a more Booker T vein; it is indeed a happy track, but happy in the more serene sense, not in a Disney-esque "uber sunshine" mode. At times, Earl's work here is reminiscent of some of the more slow and soulful early work that Carlos Santana used to present. "Patience" is a moving slow blues, and Limina's keys lay down a seriously good foundation for some of Ronnie's best and most expressive work on the album. "Miracle," then, becomes a real triumphant conclusion to this trilogy; Limina takes the Hammond right into church, which is the only proper foundation for Earl's playing here. I'm reminded of Roy Buchanan's take on "The Messiah Will Come Again;" the core emotion is one of deep spirituality, the kind that can only come from deep belief, from the heart... from real, honest, true belief. Earl both pleads and soars on this track, and the effect is intense.

"Spann's Groove" is a nice nod to Otis Spann, a slow boogie with fantastic piano work (rolling hand and all). "Skyman" and "Tommy's Midnight Blues" deliver more slower melodic blues; the former also incorporates a nice jazzy feel with sort of a quiet tropical sundown attitude. "Eleventh Step To Heaven" is my other contender for personal favorite honors on this album. The piece features some beautifully sweet and low-key bass work (provided by guest Paul Kochansk) that provides a perfect foundation for this simple-yet-complex slow blues. Earl again does a fine job of conveying his own introspective spirituality here; it's yet another seemingly instant classic.

The album's closing piece is "Blues For Bill," and I think it's a fantastic close. This is a slow and almost punchy porch type blues, though Earl gives it his trademark smooth and soulful work. It's a fascinating piece to me, as I really like the version presented here, yet I'd love to hear somebody give this a rip as a true delta number, probably on a metal National and with some good slide work - the contrast between the two renditions of this piece would really be interesting.

Ronnie chooses not to tour widely or do interviews, for the most part, but I sincerely hope to make the journey to his neck of the woods some day. I'd love to shake his hand and thank him for the amazing body of work he's given to the world. Even within that impressive catalog of his, Spread The Love ranks as one of his best.

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