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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