Ronnie Earl's first album after suffering from a bout with manic depression that sidelined him from live work for a few years, is a surprisingly modest, unassuming affair. The titular friends include Fabulous Thunderbirds founder/harpist/vocalist Kim Wilson who splits the album's vocal duties with Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson. James Cotton, Band drummer Levon Helm, keyboardist David Maxwell, and New Orleans legend Irma Thomas (who contributes her distinctive vocals to only two stunning tunes) round out the ad hoc band. Recorded live in Woodstock, NY's Bearsville studio over three days in autumn 2000 and released almost a year later, the session is a loose affair intended to emulate the old Delmark label style of rounding up blues friends, putting them together in a room and rolling tape. Of course, with musicians of this caliber, you're unlikely to go wrong, and the resulting album is a relaxed, unpretentious chronicle of these artist's interaction on blues classics and a few similarly themed originals. Most of the songs were completed in one take (you often hear the verbal cues deciding who takes a solo), and the album doesn't feature any one particular player, preferring to share the spotlight among all the "friends." Unfortunately those who come to hear Earl, one of the more tasty, understated blues guitarists, might leave disappointed since there is precious little soloing from the ex-Roomful of Blues man here. While that makes for a democratic gathering, it's also a little frustrating if you're an Earl fan. That said, there are many fine performances here. Kim Wilson is at the top of his game, shining on Little Walter's "Blue and Lonesome" and "Last Night," two of the six tracks he sings on. The former boasts Earl's longest, most passionate solo on the album along with a harp turn from Wilson that oozes with emotion. The group clicks on all the tracks, but seems to work best on the slow blues of Earl's "Twenty-Five Days," Cotton's "One More Mile," and Thomas' showcase, a languid and heartfelt medley of "I'll Take Care of You"/"Lonely Avenue," one of the disc's undisputed highlights. An album for Sunday mornings as opposed to Saturday nights, Ronnie Earl and Friends is a subtle and intimate blues session, whose headlining star remains only a small, but essential portion of the event.
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Back in the ‘70s, Ronnie Horvath got his start playing behind legends on the Boston blues scene. It was the great Muddy Waters who suggested the young guitarist change his last name to Earl to honor his mentor, Earl Hooker. That done, Earl went on to a seven-year run with Roomful of Blues before taking off on his own. Now Earl comes full circle, inviting some of his early inspirations into the studio for Ronnie Earl and Friends. Among the highlights are musical meetings between the mighty Chicago Blues harp player James Cotton and his protégé Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, who play together for the first time on record, trading licks on “Mighty Fine Boogie,” “One More Mile,” and “No More.” Wilson’s harp and vocals also add some new blues-generation energy to “Rock Me Baby,” “Last Night,” and “Blue and Lonesome.” Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, who played with Muddy Waters and leads his own band, takes on vocals and fortifies Earl’s guitar by adding his own in righteous revivals of Magic Sam’s “All Your Love” and Eddie Taylor’s “Bad Boy.” New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas smoothes out the rowdy edges of the set with a medley of “I’ll Take Care of You” and “Lonely Avenue.” Here Earl’s guitar and Maxwell’s piano mournfully punctuate Thomas’s vocals. And when she updates Junior Wells’s “Viet Cong Blues” with a tribute to vets who are still tortured by their tours of Southeast Asia, “New Vietnam Blues.” Earl is the central focus of two instrumentals, his guitar shimmering and crying on “Twenty-five Days” and dancing furiously on “Looking Good.” Each cut shows that when you are among friends, the continuity between past and present is magnified and then fortified.