Pianist Mitch Woods has always found creative ways to maximize the interest level he brings to recordings, mixing good studio concepts with some unique live settings, including his longstanding gig at the piano bar of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Blues Cruise. This time, though, he has pulled out all the stops on a star-studded session in collaboration with what amounts to a living blues hall of fame, although James Cotton has passed since Woods joined him for “Chicago Express” and the late John Lee Hooker crackles off electric guitar fills behind his world-weary vocal on “Never Get Out of These Blues Alive,” with Woods playing an Otis Spann-like accompaniment.
With Friends Along the Way Woods shows a breadth in his playing he’s never exhibited before. Taj Mahal’s acoustic guitar sets the base for Van Morrison’s vocal on “Take This Hammer,” with Woods playing a slow, understated piano accompaniment. Woods takes the lead with the same trio on the terrific “Midnight Hour Blues.” Morrison and Mahal share the vocal on a unique version of “C.C. Rider,” with Woods laying out until the second verse and adding sparse piano accents to the stark reading.
Woods continues to demonstrate an impressive accompaniment style behind Maria Muldaur on “Empty Bed Blues,” Ruthie Foster on “Singin’ the Blues,” John Hammond on “Mother In Law Blues,” Kenny Neal on “Bluesmobile” and Charlie Musselwhite on “Blues Gave Me a Ride.”
Musselwhite returns the favor, backing up Woods’ vocal and piano on “Cryin’ for My Baby.” Woods also takes the lead on the raucous “Saturday Night Boogie Woogie Man,” with Elvin Bishop backing him up on some nasty slide guitar. Bishop and Woods both sing on “Keep a Dollar In Your Pocket” with Bishop on guitar and Larry Vann on drums. In a similar vein, Woods sings and tickles the ivories on “Nasty Boogie” and Joe Louis Walker joins in on vocals and guitar.
Two of my favorite songs on the record are a vocal duet with Cyril Neville, “The Blues,” accompanied only by Woods on piano, and a soulful piano/vocal duet by Woods and Marcia Ball on “In the Night,” a fitting finale to a blues album for the ages.