Mitch Woods
Photo: Jeff Fasano

Mitch Woods Finds ‘Friends Along the Way’ on Boogie-woogie Blues Journey

As Mitch Woods and friends show us, the blues never get old, even when it’s the new release of a more than five-year-old record with bonus cuts.

Friends Along the Way (Deluxe Edition)
Mitch Woods
Club 88 Records
18 August 2023

In 2017, the boogie-woogie pianist Mitch Woods released a swinging album of (mostly) duets with some of his pals and favorite blues-style players. Friends Along the Way featured the Bay Area musician playing and singing with such notables as Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, and John Lee Hooker. The 16-track record featured classics by Ma Rainey, Huddie (Lead Belly) Ledbetter, and Professor Longhair, as well as originals by Woods and his contemporaries, including Charlie Musselwhite and Ruthie Foster. Critics praised it then, but the record company that released it focused on other projects and did not promote the jam-packed 68-minute record.

Woods decided to repurchase the master tapes and release the music as a double disc with five additional tracks by artists who already appear previously (Cyril Neville, Kenny Neal, John Hammond, Maria Muldaur, and Joe Louis Walker). The five new tracks are fine, but the original 16 cuts make this Deluxe Edition worth hearing. Bringing these songs back into print is worthwhile in and of itself. This music has been living in purgatory for too long and deserves a broader audience.

Woods plays acoustic piano and allows his guests to take the lead vocals on the majority of tracks. The songs are upbeat as befits a celebration of friendship, and even when the contents are downhearted, the performers bring out the joyful essences underneath them all. After all, even misery loves company! So, for example, when Maria Muldaur croons Bessie Smith‘s bawdy “Empty Bed Blues”, the emphasis is on the pleasures of the flesh. The lyrics’ not-too-subtle double-entendres make the carnality of the contents clear. Muldaur introduces the composition by saying she used to sing the song as a teenager without knowing what it was about, but she does now. Woods tinkles the piano accompaniment to add a playful wink to the proceedings.

Two artists, James Cotton and John Lee Hooker, have died since their tracks were recorded. Cotton’s harmonica turns the “Chicago Express” into a fast train that promises a journey into the excitement of city life. One can hear the engine speed down the rails while Woods keeps the clickety-clack of the track humming in time with itself. Hooker uses his electric guitar to acknowledge he will “Never Get Out of These Blues Alive”. There’s a deep groove and twang to his complaints as if he understands the pleasures of sin without redemption. Life may be hard, but it beats the alternative. Woods adds sparse piano fills to add to the mood.

Van Morrison and Taj Mahal team up with Woods to make a threesome on three traditional blues cuts: “C.C. Rider”, “Take This Hammer”, and “Midnight Hour Blues”. Morrison’s vocals reveal the influence of American R&B on the Irish singer’s distinctive delivery. He stretches the syllables and then cuts them off staccato style to express his pain and joy. Mahal sings and plays guitar in deceptively simple ways to suggest how natural the music feels until one realizes just how far the music has taken the listener. Woods’ piano ties it all together by keeping the rhythm flowing and in the forefront.

The are many other highlights, including Marcia Ball and Woods’ piano and vocal duets on New Orleans style music, Elvin Bishop’s rocks the blues on “Keep a Dollar in Your Pocket” and “Saturday Night Boogie Woogie Man”, and Ruthie Foster’s original composition “Singin’ the Blues” that proves one doesn’t have to shout to sing the blues. One can do it quietly with a soft melody. “A little Bobby Blue Bland never, never, never gets old,” she reminds us while Woods’ piano keeps the music groovin’. As Woods and friends show us, the blues never get old, even when it’s the new release of a more than five-year-old record with bonus cuts.

RATING 7 / 10