‘Friends Along the Way’ to a ‘Happy Hour’
Mitch Woods has been rockin’ and rollin’ and playing boogie since he first discovered it. “My stepdad got me a piano when I was a kid,” he said. “I heard a guy in our apartment building playing boogie-woogie and I was hooked. My parents got me classical lessons, but I was more interested in the blues and boogie. When I got to the University of Buffalo, I started jamming with other kids. I didn’t realize how much I’d picked up from my neighbor until the other musicians told me I sounded like an old boogie-woogie guy.”
Woods added, “I went out and got all the albums I could find by Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. I immersed myself in Louis Jordan, who bridged the gap between Black and white audiences with his jump blues. His style was the beginning of rock ’n’ roll and rhythm ’n’ blues. I started writing my own songs in that style. When people asked me what it was, I came up with ‘rock-a-boogie.’”
After graduation, Woods and his girlfriend packed up and moved to San Francisco. “My brother worked for Bill Graham,” he said. “He told me I should come out and start a band, which I did. I started as a duo with my girlfriend: Mitch Woods and His Red-Hot Mama. We slowly added drums, sax and guitar. When my girlfriend left the group, we changed our name to the Rocket 88s. I started singing, touring and making albums.”
Woods and the Rocket 88s became a fixture on the Bay Area’s ’80s blues revival scene. Since then, he’s made 13 albums and toured nationally and internationally, both with his band and as a solo act. A few years back, he decided to make a stripped down, mostly acoustic album, tracing the blues from its Southern country roots to the ongoing blues revival of the present day. He called up the friends he’d made over the years, asking them to participate in the sessions. They all agreed and the result was Friends Along the Way, a collaborative effort with Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, Ruthie Foster, John Lee Hooker, Marcia Ball and other greats. A few weeks after its original release in 2017, the label folded.
“Their label promised me a big promotional budget,” Woods said. “They had aspirations of being a major player; but just after my album came out they decided to become a film company. They dropped me. I still owned the masters and still think it’s my best album ever, but it never got the attention it deserved. I decided to reissue it in a deluxe edition, adding all the tracks that didn’t fit onto the original album.”
He continued, “Just before this record, I’d done Keeper of The Flame, a duets album with a full band and some of the blues grand masters, like Earl King, Lee Allen and James Cotton. It went well, so I wanted to do something more intimate with my contemporaries. I called it Friends Along the Way because we’re all friends. I called everyone I knew and they all said, ‘Yes,’ even Van Morrison. I planned the recording sessions around their schedules and booked studios in San Francisco, Chicago, New Jersey and New Orleans. It took about a year to get everything organized, but the sessions went really well.”
The album opens with two early blues hits, “C. C. Rider” and “Take This Hammer,” featuring Van Morrison on vocals, Taj Mahal on acoustic guitar and Woods on piano. The rhythms are strong, despite the absence of a bass player. “My left hand on the piano supplied the bass,” Woods said. “Except for Elvin Bishop’s electric guitar on a couple of tracks, like ‘Saturday Night Boogie Woogie Man,’ it’s all acoustic.”
During the recent Covid shutdown, Woods said he kept busy on several projects. “The state let me collect unemployment insurance, which I can’t usually do, being a self-employed artist,” he said. “I did virtual shows on Facebook, but when the donations tapered off I learned how to edit videotape. I’ve been taping every performance—and my travels around the world—for the last 40 years. I made them into episodes called The Boogie Woogie Blowouts and the Boogie Woogie Traveler. They’re up on my YouTube channel—mitchwoods88.”
Woods added, “I also made an album called Happy Hour. I cut it with Kid Andersen at his Greaseland Studio. We did it safely, all masked in the studio, playing new versions of tunes from my back catalog. My greatest hits, if you will. I wanted to bring something upbeat into the world in these trying times. I’ll put it out later this year or early next year, as soon as I’m finished promoting Friends Along The Way.”
Mitch Woods plays solo most Thursdays at 5pm at Pier 23 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. His next appearance is on Thursday, Aug. 24. 415.362.5125. He also hosts a blues jam at 6:30pm every Monday at Mac’s 19 Broadway, at 17 Broadway Blvd., Fairfax. 415.785.7254. He’ll be a featured artist on the next Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise in October. Details at www.bluescruise.com.