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The Graham Album Review #1919

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Mitch Woods: Friends Along the Way
by George Graham

(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/8/2017)

Most people think of the blues as guitar-oriented and electric, in the style of the classic Chicago, or Memphis schools. But of course, before electric blues, there were the acoustic blues played by innovators like Robert Johnson, and in the early days of recorded blues, performers like Bessie Smith sang the blues with piano accompaniment.

This week, we have a first-rate blues album with the piano as main instrument and the setting being almost all acoustic. It’s also a kind of all-star record with several blues luminaries taking part. It’s the new recording by veteran blues and boogie-woogie pianist Mitch Woods called Friends Along the Way. It features numerous significant guests, including Taj Mahal, Van Morrison, Elvin Bishop, Maria Muldaur, Charlie Musselwhite, and John Hammond, to name a few. Woods plays his acoustic piano in a series of intimate one-on-one performances with the guests.

Mitch Woods is a native of Brooklyn with a classical piano background but began playing playing for clubs around the State University of New York Buffalo. He moved to the West Coast, settling in the San Francisco area in 1971 where his interest in playing blues and boogie-woogie grew. He mainly played solo gigs around San Francisco in the 1970s, but in the early 1980s started playing with a band called the Rocket 88s, who released their debut album in 1984 called Steady Date, and over the years has been issuing a series of high-quality albums of boogie oriented piano-based blues. And through his nearly four-decade recording career he has worked with a long list of figures from the blues world, sometime serving as a backing or studio musician.

So for the new album, he got back together with some of those well-known blues veterans. But instead of what you might expect – his regular band with cameo appearances, the album is a series of mainly duets with his guests in an intimate acoustic setting, often quite informal sounding. Once in a while there is some added percussion, but it’s mainly Woods’ acoustic piano with the guitar, harmonica and/or vocals of his guests. Most recordings are new, but the album also contains reissues of two tracks from previous Woods recordings with blues artists who have passed on, John Lee Hooker and James Cotton. In all, it’s a generous 14-track, 68-minute album that also includes, in addition to the aforementioned, Cyril Neville, Joe Louis Walker, Ruthie Foster, Kenny Neal, and Marcia Bell. While Woods usually defers to his guests for vocals, Woods also does some singing often as a duo with the guest. There is good helping of Woods’ trademark boogie-woogie piano, but several of the tracks are more laid back, which fits well with intimate atmosphere of the album.

Leading off is one of three tracks that feature Van Morrison and Taj Mahal together, Take This Hammer. Morrison does the vocals with Taj Mahal on the guitar. The tune has more of a Gospel feel to it than straight out blues. <<>>

The same trio performs a blues classic CC Rider, with Taj Mahal on the first vocals. <<>>

Blues-rock veteran Elvin Bishop goes electric and Woods plays some boogie piano on Keep a Dollar in Your Pocket, with Woods and Bishop sharing vocal duties. The track epitomizes the informal sound of the album. <<>>

The one tune that is something of a departure from the blues direction of the album is ironically called Singin’ the Blues, a folky song written by and featuring Ruthie Foster. <<>>

John Hammond is featured on one of the more rollicking tracks, Mother In Law Blues, with Woods nicely applying his boogie piano credentials. <<>>

Chicago harmonica maven Charlie Musselwhite is the guest on two tracks. One, Cryin’ for My Baby, features Woods on the vocal as well as the piano. It’s a great slow, kind of late-night blues. <<>>

The most distinctive track on the album is simply called The Blues with Cyril Neville appearing doing a little lecture on the history of the music, rather than singing, with Woods playing a nice slow blues on the piano. <<>>

The track with the late John Lee Hooker is called Never Get Out of These Blues Alive, and it’s classic Hooker. The liner notes don’t specify when this track was recorded, with Hooker having passed away in 2001, but it’s a perfect match for the rest of the album. <<>>

The album ends with a two-piano track with Marcia Ball, on the Professor Longhair song In the Night with both keyboardists playing in the New Orleans style inspired by the good Professor. <<>>

Acoustic piano blues may not be the stereotype of the style in most fans’ minds, but it has a long history and Mitch Woods with his impressive roster of guest artists provide a great reminder of how appealing the sound can be. This series of intimate, informal parings sounds authentic and unpretentious. Most were probably first or second takes, with some musical imperfections left in, and sometimes some studio chatter is included, underscoring how much fun the participants were having.

Our grade for audio quality it close to an “A.” The sound is clean, the piano sounds very good, and there are no attempts to emulate the sound of bad old analog recordings as a lot of contemporary, especially younger blues groups have been doing. Dynamic range is decent, though not at audiophile level.

Though there are a couple of bits of electric guitar on this album, Mitch Woods Friends Along the Way shows that you don’t need to plug in a guitar and crank it up to play some great blues.

(c) Copyright 2017 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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This page last updated November 12, 2017