Album review: MITCH WOODS – Friends Along The Way

MITCH WOODS – Friends Along The Way

eOne Music [Release date 29.09.17]

It takes a brave musician to oversee a mostly unplugged, all star duo and trio compilation album spanning over 30 years.  But West coast pianist Mitch Woods is as fearless as he is musically talented on an album of career highlights from 1984 onwards.

His own presence shines like beacon on ‘Friends Along The Way’, an all star affair, with guests including John Hammond, Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Ruthie Foster, Taj Mahal Joe Louis Walker, Marcia Ball,  Charlie Musselwhite and more.

Woods is a multi-style piano player, equally at home playing boogie woogie, blues, jump blues and jazz. He radiates positivity, bonhomie and a real love of the blues.

He’s a lighting conductor of the blues who when not busy illuminating a track with dexterity and feel, is an equally attentive accompanist who brings out the best in his guests.

Listen for example, to the joyous interplay with James Cotton on ‘Chicago Express’, a piece that ebbs and flows as the duo unravel the dynamics of the song, but never once overplay.

It’s Mitch’s consistent musical presence over decades that gives the album its signature touch, as evidenced by his call and response exchange with John Lee Hooker on ‘Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive’. Hookers exclamatory ‘hey’ in the middle of the track is effectively an appreciative acknowledgment of his musical partner.

‘Friends Along The Way’ finds Woods equally happy as a band leader, soloist, accompanist and blues catalyst, as he celebrates the joy of communicating through the blues.

His pairing with Cyril Neville, and Taj Mahal on the simply titled ‘The Blues’ is essentially a mission statement for the genre and the project as a whole:  “The blues is the gospel of the common man.”

It’s his pivotal role as pianist and catalyst that glues the album together. He sparkles on down-home tracks such as the ‘Mother In Law Blues’ duet with John Hammond. The combination of rolling piano and national steel riffling is raw blues at its best.

Then there’s the unrefined beauty of the way his deliberate notes wrap themselves round Charlie Musselwhite’s earthy harp and close to the mic vocal, before the duo enjoy a drifting interplay on the most delicate of endings. Marvellous stuff.

There’s no pandering to cliché and each artist rises to the occasion by playing to their to their strengths as they bounce off Woods’s piano playing.

Listen to the opening brace of cuts with Van Morrison and Taj Mahal, as the trio indulge themselves in a master class of feel, space and time.

On ‘Take This Hammer’ Morrison exemplifies the joy of phrasing, before the guest duo stretch out on a vocal duet on ‘C.C. Rider’. Taj’s husk is offset by Van’s unfettered timbre, as Mitch tinkles the ivories.

The great Elvin Bishop adds humorous phrasing to the Jump feel of ‘Keep A Dollar In Your Pocket’. His spindly guitar line perfect straddles both vulnerability and edge, while by Woods’ solo gives the song its drive.

Ruthie Foster brings poise, a hint of reggae and perfect phrasing to Woods’s delightful fills on ‘Singin’ The Blues’, before Mitch reverts to his boogie persona with Joe Louis Walker’s steely guitar on Champion Jack Dupree’s ‘Nasty Boogie’.

Kenny Neal also adds a triple vocal, harp and guitar input on the seamless shuffle ‘Blues Mobile’, as Woods plays the bass part before an eloquently solo.

Each guest brings a different colour to 16 tracks that are rounded off by a two hander with Marcia Ball, who adds a fun vocal duet, on a track that fades all too soon.

This album is an absolute delight and thoroughly recommended. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 20:00

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