The 2009 Asperger’s Association Benefit at the Regent Theatre with Ronnie Earl
One of the best kept secrets in Arlington, Massachusetts might be the Regent Theatre in Arlington Center. If it is a secret, it shouldn’t be. This beautiful 500 seat theater is an amazing place to see a live performance. On Sunday, the Asperger’s Association of New England ran a benefit there with Ronnie Earl. It was a great cause with fantastic music in a wonderfully intimate setting.
The Asperger’s Association of New England was started in the mid-1990′s after Asperger Syndrome (AS) was made official by its inclusion into the DSM. The AANE helps people with AS and those affected others with it through services offered across the New England states. Asperger Syndrome is a form of autism; the most obvious signs of the syndrome are verbal communications problems and signs of physical problems like appearing clumsy. So many of our lives are touched by autism and AS that it was a special privilege for me to cover this event. If you didn’t make it this show, please consider making a donation to the AANE’s 2009 fund – it’s a wonderful organization that helps people across New England.
The Regent Theatre was the perfect venue for this benefit concert. It’s a classic town-center theater with beautiful accoutrements. The Regent puts on a lot of live music shows as well as films and other types of entertainment. And they were extremely helpful in putting together the benefit. All of the proceeds from this concert, all of them, went directly to the AANE’s fund. The Regent didn’t take a cut or charge for catering or other services and the AANE made sure that any other incidental payments were covered from other sources. So the price of a ticket was a direct donation to the cause. So you could attend an awesome concert and know that your money was actually being used to help people affected by AS. What a great feeling.
After some brief words from the event organizers and a raffle with some very unique Ronnie Earl memorabilia (including a signed poster from the opening of the new House of Blues last month), Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters took the stage for what would be a long and intense set of blues. It took a few songs for them to get in the groove and then things started to really get hot in there, as Ronnie called the shots for the band and played through most of what would be an almost three hour concert. After the first few songs, Ronnie took a break to address the audience and talk about both his most recent album, Hope Radio, as well as a new one he is working on. Ronnie tries to say when it will be out, but then falters. “It will be out…” The audience gets a little uncomfortable. Then he pulls the punchline. “We don’t really know when it will be out. They haven’t told us yet and it always seems to take a long time.” The audience laughs, and Ronnie starts playing again.
Now let’s talk a little bit about Ronnie Earl. Ronnie has been kicking around the blues scene locally, nationally and internationally for years. I first got into Ronnie Earl in the mid-1990′s. I picked up Deep Blues and got sucked in immediately. But Ronnie is also known for playing with Roomful of Blues back in the 1980′s. And here there is a bizarre connection to me, actually. Roomful of Blues used to play at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, RI. Oddly enough, my father was in a movie that featured Lupo’s prominently. It is called Complex World and has a performance by Roomful of Blues playing Dressed Up To Get Messed Up, although I don’t know if Ronnie was in the lineup at that point. But that was a long time ago. These days, Ronnie is an elder statesman of blues guitar, if not the elder statesman of blues guitar.
And the reason is quite simply this: Ronnie channels everything he has through the instrument with a passion. If it’s not obvious from the photos I’m showing here, then it will be as I talk about the show. He’s got an extremely competent set of players to back him and that allows him to take his music and that of the band wherever he feels like it needs to go to express what he’s feeling. He’s very intense in this way. If he felt like something needed to happen he just made it happen. That could be ending a song early, extending it, changing the key, bringing up a student to give them on-stage experience – whatever. And that aspect of this performance was absolutely riveting. At one point he turned around before a song and said to the band, “we’re going to start on A, move to C, then to D, then to E, OK? That’s A to C to D to E.” And sometimes nobody knows what Ronnie is going to do next, but everyone knows that it will be good, real and straight from the heart.
And Ronnie’s heart is out there for all to see. He expresses himself in every way that he can. With soft, delicate notes or raucous, blues power chords. At full volume or barely a whisper – we experienced all of that. In my opinion, that makes for about the best concert experience you can imagine. There was a set list, yes, and clearly the band has to practice and all. But those activities are geared towards being able to improvise to a level you won’t see in many other places. You’ll certainly never see it in a pop performance, where everything is choreographed to the note. Ronnie eschews all of that in favor of simple, true music.
But before I get too much further in talking about Ronnie Earl, let me also spend a moment talking about the Broadcasters. The lineup has changed over the years, but Limina, Entress and Mouradian are a rock-steady complement to Ronnie’s style. Jim Mouradian is the most understated – he doesn’t solo or do anything flashy, but he keeps a meticulous bass line under everything that Ronnie is playing. This is not one simple style of blues. Ronnie played several kinds of blues as well as a few gospel tunes during the show. But Jim kept pace with everything, playing calmly and precisely through all the changes Ronnie called.
Dave Limina is the player who interacts with Ronnie the most musically. The piano or B3 is integral to many of the songs Ronnie plays. Dave does them both well, but his Hammond B3 shines in particular. A third of the way (or so) through the show, Ronnie tells Dave to take a solo on the B3. Dave cranks through 8 or 12 bars of some great Hammond blues organ solo. Ronnie is standing in front of the Hammond, eyes closed, feeling the music and playing rhythm with the odd lick thrown in. Near the end of the solo, Ronnie opens his eyes and looks over and just says, “again.” Dave smiles, throws his head back and rips into an even sweeter, more aggressive solo on the organ. As that solo draws to a close, Ronnie looks over at Dave, shakes his head in gratitude and pleasure and says, “one more.” Dave looks at him quizzically. Ronnie says, “yeah, one more,” or something like that. So Dave shrugs, and then cuts into a third solo, this one even more aggressive than the last, finally satisfying Ronnie. And it is a joy to watch Dave Limina play, because he’s really damn good at it and so clearly loves to be playing.
Lorne Entress has maybe the most difficult job of the Broadcasters. As the drummer, he has a special obligation to keep ahead of what Ronnie is going to do and it’s not always obvious what that is. He has to use a wide range of tactics to match the intent of the passages Ronnie is playing. In the photo below, you’ll notice he’s actually not drumming the snare with his left hand, he’s actually doing a rim tap. Ronnie will often take the volume of the performance down so low that Lorne would probably be better served using brushes than sticks. If there’s one thing I would say that is critical, it’s that I didn’t hear enough of Lorne. There were three or four times during the concert where Lorne turned up the heat on the drums, playing a little more loudly and aggressively. Adding fills and runs around the main rhythm. And to me those sections electrified the songs. They were great moments because the energy of the song just lifted so dramatically. I would like to have heard more of them.
Ronnie made it clear from the start that he was going to put on a good long show and he didn’t disappoint. But there’s a few things about the show you won’t see from the photographs. The most significant of these is the time he spent playing in the audience. Ronnie left the stage on multiple occasions and just walked up the aisles playing for people. The thing about Ronnie is that you can tell that it is not about showmanship, although he’s got that down too. It’s about what he’s feeling and expressing. And if he sees someone grooving to the music or that he wants to play for, he’ll just walk off the stage and go do it. He spent a significant amount of time playing from parts of the audience. And he played a lot of quiet sections from the audience. One thing about Ronnie is that he exercises an amazingly broad range of volume throughout the show. He plays a lot of very delicate, soulful quiet sections. There are a lot of musicians that can shred the neck up when they’ve got distortion, compression and other effects going. And Ronnie plays some mean licks too. But Ronnie plays about as pure a form of electric guitar as you can play. A Fender Stratocaster jacked straight into a Fender Super Reverb. Put those shredders on that rig, turn the volume on the amp up and the volume on the guitar down and see how much soul they can crank out. It is arguably harder to play that way than to shred a fast scale through a distortion pedal. Ronnie did it beautifully.
As a guitarist myself, I’m always trying to learn new techniques. One of my favorite songs to play is one of Ronnie’s oldest: Ronnie Johnnie, from the Deep Blues album. Ronnie Johnnie is a few minutes of blues stomp with only drums to accompany it. It’s an audacious track to lead into an album which is part of the reason it’s left such a big impression on me. It shows the breadth of understanding Ronnie has of the blues in its many forms. Sometime after the middle of the set, Ronnie called for a chair and sat down and played three old Delta blues songs. It is harder and harder to find musicians who can play in this style with any real feeling. The emotion of these songs is so central to how they are played. It was a captivating moment and one that really highlighted the level of talent the Ronnie has. These songs were full of howling soul. He’d stomp his feet, flick the strings with his fingers, all while belting out some seriously sweet Delta blues on his guitar.
A few songs later, the band came up and it looked like that moment in a concert where the band looks done and you need to figure out if there’s going to be an encore. But Ronnie squashed that immediately. As he took the microphone, he said simply, “we’re not done yet.” And the Broadcasters smiled knowingly, went back to their instruments and played for at least another half hour. The show didn’t end on a set piece. It ended when Ronnie was done expressing himself.
The concert Ronnie played here last year is now somewhat of a legend in Ronnie Earl circles. The band played a full second set after the initial concert ended. And then when they were starting to pack up, Ronnie ran into someone in the audience who he wanted to play with. So he stopped everything and they played a third set for the sixty-odd people still milling about in the theater. And on this occasion, Ronnie showed some of the same flair. He still teaches blues guitar and he invited three students to play with him. In one case, Ronnie was in the crowd playing and his student was sitting a few seats away. Ronnie finished a section of the song and simply took the guitar off, handed it to his student and then went up onstage to get the other one. He had two nearly identical setups on stage – Fender Strat and Fender Super Reverb. The photo below is during this part of the concert. You can see the guitar cord is stretched – I don’t think it was even touching the ground. Because of course Ronnie had given the student the guitar with the long cord and he picked up the other guitar and got as close to the audience as he could before he felt the tension of the cord pulling back on the instrument.
But what stands out the most from this show is the raw emotion displayed by Ronnie. The triptych below is classic Ronnie Earl. Eyes shut, face contorted, body and guitar moving. Ronnie playing is a full-body experience. If you are close enough, you can even hear him humming along with the notes of his solos.
Ronnie is not shy about talking about much. He willingly told the audience that he had been clean and sober for 20 years now, and that his 56th birthday was coming up. In fact he joked that when you hit 56, you can’t flip the digits around anymore to make yourself feel better. He has generally retired from touring, but plays when the cause is right. Often times, that’s at benefits like this one. He explained that he went to school to be a special education teacher, as it was known back then, and so he feels a great affinity for causes like AS. The chances to see him play a performance like this are fewer these days, but if you are in Massachusetts or the eastern parts of New England, you are in luck. He’s got at least three performances lined up for this spring and will be playing the Lowell Summer Music Series this summer. Check his web site for further details and go see him. You’ll be glad you did.
Note: Many people helped me to obtain permission to cover this performance and so I would like to extend a special thanks to Steve Garfinkle and Dania Jekel of the AANE, Leland Stein of the Regent Theatre and especially Tom Hazeltine, Ronnie Earl’s road manager extraordinaire and a great photographer as well.