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August 2023

Mitch Woods
Friends Along The Way
Club 88 Records

Mitch Woods

Highly acclaimed piano master Mitch Woods has gathered recordings made with his blues friends as he traveled the world with his band over the years, with the songs on this double-album being, as he describes it in the liner notes, "in an intimate and mostly unplugged environment."

The album was originally released in 2017 by the eOne label, which shortly thereafter changed to more of a film company and stopped promoting the albums previously released by them. Wood obtained the rights to the masters, now re-releasing the album on his own Club 88 label, with five previously-unreleased numbers.

Woods' friends along the way include some of the biggest names in the blues business, and he lets them take the lead while providing piano accompaniment to their singing an playing. Guest starring on the 21 cuts are iconic figures Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, John Lee Hooker, Elvin Bishop, Marcia Ball, Maria Muldaur, Cyril Nevillle, Ruthie Foster, John Hammond, Joe Louis Walker, Charlie Musselwhite, James Cotton, and Kenny Neal. Whew, what a collection of stars!. Woods lets the stars take each song and do it in their own style while he is content to sit back and romp along on the 88's, occasionally adding his voice to the mix.

Three of the cuts feature both Van Morrison and Taj Mahal on vocals. I wondered how they would share the spotlight and how well their voices would mix, with these tunes being perhaps the highlight of the album. Taj, Van and Mitch cover Ma Rainey's "C.C. Rider," Leadbelly's "Take This Hammer," and Leroy Carr's "Midnight Hour Blues." The only accompaniment is Taj's acoustic or National steel guitar and Woods' piano work, although Morrison picks up a tambourine during the recording of "Take This Hammer." Just simple, heartfelt blues done very well. These three songs justify the cost of the album alone, especially hearing the energy and emotion in Morrison's voice on "Take This Hammer."

Despite never seeing her in person, I've become a big fan of Ruthie Foster's singing, so hearing another version of one of her more popular tunes, "Singin' The Blues," is another treat. We get dueling pianos on the Professor Longhair tune, "In The Night," with Marcia Ball and Woods going at it on piano while also sharing vocals, both pumping extra oomph into their voices.

Joe Louis Walker steps into different territory for him with the Lightnin' Hopkins classic, "Worried Life Blues," as he shares vocals with Woods while playing acoustic guitar before getting more energetic on the Champion Jack Dupree blues jumper, "Nasty Boogie." I really dig this side of JLW that we don't hear on his many releases with a full band.

Another treat is hearing New Orleans legend Cyril Neville singing the blues with only Woods behind him on piano. Neville puts so much power into his vocals on "Blues For New Orleans" and "The Blues" that I could swear there's more to this session than just one man's voice and one man on piano. While listening to these two numbers, I keep thinking about James Booker, because this is the kind of thing that he would have done. Absolutely sublime, or as Neville says on the latter song, "that's the blues ... the roots of American blues gumbo."

Woods and harmonica ace James Cotton take us on a fast ride down the tracks on "Chicago Express," with Woods handling vocals while Cotton blows out the appropriate train noises with some truly incredible harmonica licks. It's good to have another John Lee Hooker song as he does one of his classics, "Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive," subtly inserting the appropriate guitar chords on top of the bed put down by Woods.

I could keep rambling on, but by now you should have an idea what this album is all about. You know all the names and you are probably familiar with the originals of many of these songs. Each of the 21 cuts on Friends Along The Way is a gem, done lovingly by some of the best blues artists of the last 30 or so years. Even if you've heard these songs before, Woods and his guests re-invent every single note to make it sound fresh and invigorated.

--- Bill Mitchell

 

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