Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters
at the Long's Park Amphitheater,
Lancaster, Pa. (5 June 2011)

Ronnie Earl, master of the blues guitar, perfomed Sunday for 3,000 to 4,000 of his closest and dearest friends.

Earl kicked off the free summer concert series Sunday evening at Long's Park, in Lancaster, Pa., with a top-notch selection of instrumental blues that took him down from the stage and out among his ravenous fans.

Earl came on stage with his band, the Broadcasters, his hands pressed together in a gesture of supplication, murmering his thanks before playing a note. "Good to see you all, my brothers and sisters in the great state of Pennsylvania," he said.

Then the music began, and the audience was clapping within a few bars of the first tune. Dancers were on the floor a minute or two later.

The audience at Long's Park was ready and eager to groove to Ronnie Earl's delicate and expressive fingerwork. But no one expected the intimate show Earl provided.

"Can you feel the spirit?" he asked, introducing "Eddie's Gospel Groove" as his second number. "Are you with us tonight?"

The groove began at a fast pace, but Earl soon took it down low and slow, a moody exploration of the theme. Then he hopped down from the stage and joined the crowd, working the music with nimble fingers and generally looming large over the seated audience. His eyes were often closed as he played, face working the music as expressively as his hands. When his eyes opened, he always made long, lasting eye contact with members of the crowd, sometimes bowing, waving, blowing kisses or leaning down to exchange a few words with a rapt listener.

It was an up close and personal moment for Ronnie Earl fans that they'd be taking with them and carrying for years to come. And he stayed there, among his fans, as he rolled into a boogie-woogie blues piece, his pearl-gray Fender parting the crowd like a knife.

He headed back to the stage during the fourth tune, but he didn't stay there for long. Earl headed back into the audience on several occasions, sometimes disappearing into a sea of fans, sometimes gesturing to the people to sit and give others a clearer view.

It was a very personal show. At one point, Earl invited a pair of old college friends to move closer to the stage "so I can play to you." He asked people seated on the far hill to shift nearer, as well. "We are family tonight," he said, before launching into his "Blues for the West Side."

The band was nattily dressed, all in jackets, most in ties, Earl standing out with a black moon-and-stars scarf and a pork-pie hat

Once, Earl ventured a little too far into the crowd and his guitar jack pulled free, but his band -- Dave Limina on keys, Jim Mouradian on bass and Lorne Entress on drums -- had things well in hand and kept the beat going until Earl could reconnect.

A guitar virtuoso from Groton, Mass., Earl spices his blues with jazz and gospel inflections. Now 58 and with 30 albums under his belt -- mostly recently 2010's Spread the Love -- Earl tours little, rarely outside of New England and New York. But Pennsylvania holds a special place in his heart, he said. He met his wife, with whom he'll celebrate their 15th anniversary later this month, at Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem.

He is, he told the audience, 22 years sober after a long battle with drugs, and his music these days is focused on spirituality, sobriety and a happy marriage.

On Sunday his guitar was soaring, sweeping or striding as needed for the all-instrumental show, which lasted more than two hours as clouds rolled across the sky with the scent of rain on the wind.

"We're here to bring you the blues," he said. "The blues is not sad music. Blues comes out of the heart, and sometimes the pain, but the pain turns to joy."

When Earl told the audience to clap, they clapped. When he urged them to dance, they danced. Once or twice, he went down on his knees among the crowd. At one moment, he tossed his hat mid-tune onto the head of a young girl, who seemed unsure if she should move until he reclaimed it a few minutes later.

"You're such a beautiful audience," he said. "We love you."

It was a surprisingly private concert for the people lucky enough to be seated up front.

"We've been married for 15 years, and we've been coming to these concerts together since we got married," Julie Lee of Lancaster, snuggled by her husband, Roger, at the foot of the stage, said. "We love to get close and really experience the show. And we're always impressed by the quality of the music. Lancaster is blessed to have this concert series."

"I've never seen him before," said Fred Martin of Reading, who was manning a charcoal grill on the amphitheater lawn. "But I've been following these guys for years.

Earl has the full blues package -- "style, quality of performance, everything about the blues is exceptional with him," Martin said. "He's outstanding."

Earl invited several people to join him on stage during the show. Seth Holzman of Ardmore, an old friend, added harmonica to the package on two occasions. Donald "Zig" Zeller from Philadelphia, a fan who met Earl for the first time last year, played a little dueling guitars. And Jessi Teich, also from Philly, got the thrill of a lifetime when he asked her to come up and sing during an unplanned and unrehearsed jam.

Teich, who recently released her debut CD, said Earl has been her hero since she was 8 years old, when her father sometimes would let her be late for school because she was listening to Earl's recordings. "My dad said it was my true music education, listening to Ronnie Earl," she said.

She wrote to Earl recently and told him how much his music meant to her, Teich said. She was astonished when he called and invited her to meet him after Sunday's show. She didn't expect to join him on stage, but she rose to the occasion with a soulful growl that had the audience crying out for more.

Rain started to fall shortly before 9:30 p.m. and, although it was over almost before it began, it cleared out the masses, sending half the crowd scurrying for their cars. Many of those who remained ran for the dubious shelter of the amphitheater roof -- which put them in prime position for Earl's encore performance of "San Jose."

The concert series continues next week with the Tannahill Weavers.

by Tom Knapp
11 June 2011