US pianist/singer Mitch Woods keeps great company on his stunning new album, which features such legends as John Lee Hooker, Van Morrison and Taj Mahal. The New York-born artist is joined by a star-studded array of music stars on “Friends Along The Way”, his 12th album.
Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Ruthie Foster, Joe Louis Walker, Maria Muldaur, Cyril Neville, Marica Ball, John Hammond and Kenny Neal perform with Mitch across this 16-track gem – all friends and colleagues he has got to know during a four-decade career.
If that was not enough to get us excited; there’s also monster treats in the form of the late and legendary blues heroes John Lee Hooker and harmonica giant James Cotton, joining 66-year-old Mitch on earlier recordings.
Just released in the UK, when the record dropped in the USA late last year, it shot to #1 on the Top 50 Jazzy Blues Album Charts (Roots Music Report) and reached # 8 on the Living Blues radio chart. Now it is the UK and Europe’s turn to sample what Mitch calls “rock-a-boogie,” and find out what the fuss is about.
With his band The Rocket 88’s, Mitch has helped to revive and breathe new life into the jump jive blues approach of the ’40s and ’50s. Originally from New York, Mitch Woods moved to San Francisco in 1970. Growing up in Brooklyn, he studied jazz and classical styles, but after the move to ‘Frisco, he got drawn into the jump blues and R&B scene. Guitarist Hi Tide Harris introduced Woods to the delights of Louis Jordan’s music, and he was hooked…
Between 1970 and 1980, Woods performed as a solo artist in local clubs. In 1980, he formed the Rocket 88’s, featuring Harris on guitar. Four years later they released their debut album, “Steady Date”, on Blind Pig. That record had quite an impact and secured them bookings for US blues clubs and festivals, as well as European tours.
Their second album, “Mr Boogie’s Back In Town”, was released in 1988, and shows in the U.S., Canada and Europe followed. Three years later, their third album, “Solid Gold Cadillac”, won wide acclaim. Album # 4, “Shakin’ the Shack” arrived in 1993 before a nine-year wait for 2001’s “Jump for Joy”.
Mitch returned in 2006 with “Big Easy Boogie”, recorded with a crew of veteran New Orleans’ musicians, and then “Jukebox Drive”; recorded during a tour of Europe in 2008 – Mitch backed by the Spanish swing band the Lazy Jumpers.
“Gumbo Blues” in 2010 was another album in the New Orleans style, focused on tunes written by blues legend Smiley Lewis. The 2012 live album, “Blues Beyond Borders: Live in Istanbul” did brisk business, and then in 2015 he released “Jammin’ on the High Cs”, another live disc. Recorded while Woods was performing as part of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise.
The songs on “Friends Along The Way” were penned by the likes of Lead Belly, Ma Rainey, Oliver Perry, Ruthie Foster, Don Robey, Champion Jack Dupree, J.C. Johnson, Kenny Neal, Taj Mahal/Norman Caesar/Cyril Neville, Jimmy Liggins, Charlie Musselwhite, John Lee Hooker, Leroy Carr, Henry Roeland Byrd and two by Mitch Woods, who produced the record.
It is always a risk having a large group of “star guests” on a project. It can turn out to be a bit of a car crash and suffocate the songs, which then pushes the main artist into the background. Was that in Mitch’s mind when making the record?
“No. Each cut was done individually with each artist, except of course the cuts with Van, Taj, and myself. So, it was a very intimate recording. I just wanted to bring out the best in each of these incredible musicians.
“Being a piano player gives me lots of versatility. I can play rhythm, melody, bass, and sing as well. I did whatever each tune called for and it all came out very naturally. It is “The Blues” and each of my guests is a master of the idiom, and we all know what to bring out in the songs”.
On choosing he songs for the record and which ones were a best ft for each guest…. “Well, it is called Friends Along The Way for a reason. Actually, each artist is a real friend of mine. So, I started by just asking. I was flattered and pleasantly surprised that so many of them came forward and were happy to be a part of this recording.
“So, it came about organically. Then we each decided on what tunes to play. I wanted a nice variety of musicians and I think I achieved that. I asked each of my guests what tunes they would like to do. It was a mutual decision making process. I had a few of my tunes that I wanted to record, like Cryin’ For My Baby, which I knew would be a great one for Charlie Musselwhite, and it is!
“I was quite flattered that so many VIPs agreed to play with me. Van, in particular. We have been friends for many years, but never worked together. The timing was right, since he was performing at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, as well as Taj, and I was living there in New Orleans at the time.
“They both agreed, the studio was open, and the Gods smiled on us as we converged to play together! As for the other artists, I was able to record with them when we were touring in the same area. I just booked the studio and off we went”.
Mitch is already planning Volume 2, and among his invited mates will be three who could not make it this time: Los Lobos, Tab Benoit and Shamekia Copeland. He has eight cuts in the can that they didn’t use for the current album, and he hopes to add more guests for Volume 2.
He finds it tough to choose a favourite track from the bunch. “Boy that is a hard one. There are so many great tracks on this, each one different from the other. Take This Hammer, with Van and Taj still puts the hair on the back of my neck up!
“I love the Ruthie Foster cut- Singing The Blues, I think it could be a commercial hit. The Maria Muldaur cut, Empty Bed Blues is great…and Charlie playing on my tune- Cryin’ For My Baby is awesome.
Did anyone surprise Mitch in relation to what they brought to the party on their track? “I think everyone on the album brought their best. So many great artists with their individual style. I am truly blessed. I was very happily surprised when Van got in the studio and got inspired. We were only going to do one song, but wound up doing three”.!
Many star studded albums feature recordings where the main artist and the star guest are never in the same studio at the same time. So a duet is actually two separate recordings glued together digitally. But not with this project. No Sir!
“Absolutely not. I don’t care for dialed-in recordings, especially for blues. I think the magic on this CD is that all the musicians gathered around the piano and just played the blues! Very simple and intimate”. Mitch reveals he has to approach his side of things on piano differently when you have such big stars on the tracks, and it is not just him on keys and vocal?
“Yes, it is a totally different approach then when I am recording my band and I am the front man. I wanted to bring out the best in my guests and not try to overshadow them. As I said the piano is a perfect instrument to do just that.
“On some songs, I sang if it was appropriate, others I just played piano accompaniment, whatever worked best for the song. I must say I am a confident vocalist, but when Van was in the room, I bowed to his excellence. Maybe on Volume 2 I will sing with him!”
Among the new cuts, are two older recordings from Mitch’s previous album, “Keeper Of The Flame,” and on these two tracks, he is joined by two legendary blues men who are sadly no longer with us. John Lee Hooker and harmonica master James Cotton.
“Those tracks were taken from my previous album-Keeper Of The Flame, in which I played duets with some of the great American Blues Masters including Earl King, Johnnie Johnson, Lee Allen as well as John Lee, and Cotton. Those tracks were done early in my career and it was such a great honor to play with my heroes. I included them here because I wanted to preserve their great legacy, as well as give a perspective on my musical career”.
John Lee Hooker – Here In Spirit…
Mitch feels those cool cats were definitely looking down approvingly while making this new album and liting those two tracks for the project. “There are a lot of people looking down and cheering me on!…..John Lee, Cotton, Allen Toussaint, Earl Palmer, Herb Hardesty, Johnnie Johnson…so many greats who did become Friends Along The Way and inspire me to press on”.
Mitch on working with the boogie man, John Lee Hooker? “I had sat in with John Lee at one of his birthday gigs…he was fairly old by then. He heard me and agreed to play on Keeper Of The Flame, which was awesome for me ( I was probably around 30 years old then).
“He was a sweetheart. When he came in the studio I thought, oh my, he is so frail. He shook my hand and it was soft like a baby’s hand. When the red light came on and we started recording, he came to life. So strong and full of blues. I just held on and played with him. Every musician should have that experience. He then called me to play on his album-Boom Boom!”
12 albums in your career. How different or not, is this one, other than the fact it has all these friends on it with you? “This was inspired by my Keeper Of The Flame CD. Duets with the Great American Blues Masters. I wanted to do one with my contemporaries now that I am older. My previous CD-Jammin’ On The High Cs”, Live on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise also features lots of special guests. I have been playing my “Club 88” Blues Piano Bar on the ship for 16 years now, so have lots of friends sitting in with me on that”.
Mitch has just notched up two nominations for the annual Blues Music Awards. Is he chuffed? “It feels great of course. I have been nominated before, but only for piano player of the year. Now nominated for Best Acoustic Album, and Piano Player. I guess in blues you really do have to pay your dues to get noticed. I have been doing this a long time, and I love it”.
The record did really well when it was released last year in USA and hit several charts. Now Mitch is keen on UK exposure, and will tour here later this year. “I am glad to see it is getting great airplay on all the blues stations. We are still inching up on the Americana and AAA charts.
“My hope is that it gets to the widest audience possible. So DJs-keep playing it in the UK too!” The record is getting many spins here, and rave reviews, including a 4 star review in the Sunday Express newspaper.
“It has been quite a while since I toured the UK, so I am really looking forward to returning. First time was back in the late 80s!!! we played the 100 Club, Half Moon in Putney (London)….I came back to play Bishopstock Festival years ago….I am in Europe quite a bit, and also have played Monaghan Blues Festival in Ireland a bunch of times.
“I first came to Europe in the mid 80s. Brought over by the promoter in Belgium at Peer Festival, then toured around, including Scandinavia. I am pretty much in Europe every year, especially in the summer playing festivals. Coming up this summer is Ascona Jazz Festival, Switzerland in June, Porretta Shoul Festival in Italy, July, and another festival in Spain in September 2018.
Keeping the flame burning…
Your music keeps 40s and 50s jump jive and boogie woogie alive and kicking in the digital age. Is it a genre of music that will die out as the younger artists and musicians focus on other more modern styles?
“I hope it does not die out. It is too good. It is also the basis of so much of popular music. Always good to go back to the roots!” He does just that for his main influences…. The great boogie pianists-Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson… and most of New Orleans music: Fats Domino, Allan Toussaint, Professor Longhair, Dr. John…and jump blues artists-Wynonie Harris, Louis Jordan, Roy Brown, Joe and Jimmy Liggins.
Mitch names his Top Five greatest ever pianists. Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Liberace….The last one, he’s just kidding! Best live performer he ever saw: A tie: Bruce Springsteen and Fats Domino.
He says the key to longevity in a music career, is to make your living as a musician….no day jobs! “It helps to play piano, and sing, and be a good business person. Versatility. Make your living as a musician! I know its a lot harder now, but you will be getting paid to practice and get better.
For “best moment of your career so far”, Mitch says there are too many to choose just one, but for his worst moment, he painfully recalls one particular show that did not go to plan…
“Worst moment was opening for Chuck Berry, and we were going to be his back-up band. He never showed, and the promoter made us go out on stage. That’s when we needed the chicken wire to stop the flying bottles!”
The only bottles knocking about right now, have champagne in ’em, to celebrate the fabulous start-studded party Mitch and his pals are having on his new album. Cheers!
- Mitch Woods: Friends Along The Way (Entertainment One) UK release: 23rd February 2018
By Christopher Weston