Less than two weeks ago, Ronnie Earl was sick with the flu and contemplated canceling his gig the next night at B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York. When he awoke in the morning, he felt fine, and the show at the Times Square club would go on … and on ... and on ... and on.
Earl, just a few weeks before his 63rd birthday (which he celebrates March 10), played nonstop for three hours and 16 minutes, ripping out one blues riff after another with his band, the Broadcasters. It was a homecoming for Earl, who was born in Rego Park, Queens, about eight miles east of the club.
Earl joked to the audience at B.B.King’s that many people say Mississippi or Louisiana is the birthplace of the blues, but it really is Queens. Many in the club might have believed him after his marathon set.
Whether playing his own blues songs, the classic blues song “I’d Rather Go Blind” first popularized by Etta James, an Otis Rush song or the big Gladys Knight & the Pips hit, “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” Earl unleashed clean, tasty leads that ran the gamut from vicious to sublime.
The Broadcasters — organist Dave Limina, bassist Jimmy Mouradian and drummer Lorne Entress — provided solid support, and, when they were joined by new member and vocalist Diane Blue, Earl and ensemble knocked it out of the park. The Boston-based Blue is a sensational lead singer dripping with emotion who puts every inch into every syllable.
She nailed “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which was written many moons ago by Ellington Jordan and Billy Foster. Etta James, Koko Taylor, Rod Stewart and others have sung great versions of the song, and the version by Earl and his group stands with the best.
Throughout much of the show, the Broadcasters were left alone on stage, as Earl meandered through the audience playing hot electric leads. Sometimes, he sank to the floor and stayed there for long stretches while feverishly picking away. At one point, he grabbed a woman in the audience and danced to the Broadcasters’ beats.
Earl invited several guest stars to join him, including sizzling blues guitarists Nick Moss and Bobby Radcliff, and vocalist Michael Ledbetter of the Nick Moss Band. Moss, whom Earl once declared was his favorite guitarist, and Ledbetter were playing at Lucille’s Bar & Grill, a separate space at B.B. King’s, and they added some younger blues flavor. Radcliff, a protege of Magic Sam, has recorded several blues albums and worked with the original Blues Brothers. Roomful of Blues, and Kinky Friedman.
Earl also invited an Argentine singer and an Argentine guitarist whom he had first met before the show to come up on stage, and they held their own. It was another generous nod for Earl, who has often turned the spotlight on the blues musicians who have followed in his and other blues masters’ footsteps.
A substantial number of club goers — many undoubtedly worrying about getting sufficient shut-eye before work the next morning — were gone about 2 3/4 hours into the lengthy show. The group finally played an encore song and waved good-bye, but Earl didn’t leave the stage. Though there was no intermission and he took no breaks, Earl said he would rather keep playing than sitting in a hotel room and called for two chairs. He and Blue did a couple of soft country blues songs with Blue adding a nice touch of blues harp.
Earl then stood up and called for his full band, who appeared somewhat surprised to be back on stage. A B.B. King’s manager then walked on stage and told Earl he couldn’t continue, because the club was closing. Three hours and 16 minutes of blues was quite a bargain and a most memorable night for the faithful.
Unlike the 1960s, when the Grateful Dead and some other bands were known for very long, seemingly endless club shows, performers today rarely play much more than 90 minutes, and fans have come to treasure occasional two-hour performances. Thus, Earl’s far more lengthy show felt wondrous.
I have seen many hundreds of club shows and can only recall one that was longer.
It was the best club show I have ever seen: Bob Dylan at Toad’s Place in New Haven, Connecticut, on Jan. 12, 1990. Playing a rehearsal gig in the hometown of his guitarist, G.E. Smith, Dylan did the unthinkable: 244 minutes — or more than four hours — of music. I am still surprised I was even able to gain entry.
When I arrived at Toad’s, I was told that the show was sold out, and no tickets were available. My wife, Terry, and I walked down the street where some guy was standing by a storefront selling a handful of tickets, and we bought two for a very reasonable price. The ticket taker at Toad’s, though, told us the tickets were fake and wouldn’t let us in. Another Toad’s worker next to him, though, said the tickets were valid and let us in. I still am unsure what that was all about.
Inside, the place was jammed. Everyone was expecting a normal-length Dylan show of a few hours, and Dylan fans knew that Bob would throw a few curveballs into his unpredictable, ever-changing set list. But even his staunchest fans couldn’t even dream about what Bob delivered that night.
Wearing a sweatshirt and frequently drinking from a cup that seemed to be holding a screwdriver or another mixed drink, Dylan playfully tore into his catalog and the catalogs of other musicians. He kicked off with Joe South’s “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” a song he had never performed live before and has never played since. He followed with “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” from the Desire album and then his classic "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" from Blonde on Blonde.
Before the four one-hour sets were done and Dylan called it a night, he played five of his own songs for the first time live before an audience: “Political World,’ “Where Teardrops Fall,” “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love),” “What Was It You Wanted,” and “Wiggle Wiggle.” He played “Political World” two more times that night and also repeated “Where Teardrops Fall” once.
There were no solo songs, and the four-piece band, which included Tony Garnier on bass and Chris Parker on drums, played no acoustic set. Dylan talked and joked with the crowd and even fielded requests. As the hours passed, two people taping the show surreptitiously in the audience began to worry. They hadn’t brought enough tapes, and the club wasn’t allowing anyone to leave and return. The two tapers made a historic alliance: They agreed to share the music, and one agreed to let his master tape be used to record the show’s conclusion. The world would later get a four-CD bootleg from a label called Wanted Man. To this day, many Dylan collectors pray that a soundboard tape, or a legitimate release of the show, will emerge.
Dylan’s surprises on stage that night kept coming in machine-gun fashion, playing many more songs he hadn’t before played live and hasn’t played since. He astonishingly covered Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark;” “Across the Borderline” written by Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Jim Dickinson, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “When Did You Leave Heaven?”
He also covered Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More,” Glen Glenn’s “Everybody’s Movin’,” Elizabeth Cotten’s “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” Moon Martin’s “Paid The Price,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” Hank Williams’ “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle,” Weldon Rogers’ “So Long, Good Luck and Goodbye,” John Wright’s “Precious Memories,” Lead Belly’s “In The Pines,” and Charles Segar’s “Key to the Highway.” Yes, it was that driving old blues song, “Key to the Highway,” which vaulted to reached international recognition when Eric Clapton recorded it for Derek and the Dominos' 1970 landmark album “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.”
And those weren’t the only surprises. He pulled out “Congratulations” by the Traveling Wilburys, a band that never performed a live concert. Assuming the name Lucky Wilbury, Dylan, of course, was in that superstar band along with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. Dylan also covered traditional songs “Been All Around This World,” which he performed twice, and “Peggy-O.”
Bob didn’t shortchange his own catalog, including some rarely played songs. He played “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Watching the River Flow,” “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” “Lenny Bruce,” “In the Garden,” “Joey,” “Maggie’s Farm,”and “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”
When the final song began, I and many others in the audience were about to keel over in exhaustion from standing before the show began and for four one-hour sets with breaks between the sets. There were no seats during the marathon night and no room to flop down on a floor that was sticky from spilled drinks and whatever else. But the discomfort really didn’t matter as Bob concluded with his 50th song of the night, his celebratory anthem “Like A Rolling Stone.” We filed out knowing we had seen a huge chunk of musical history, Dylan’s longest and most unusual show.