Merl Saunders

With His Funky Friends: Live

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This compilation of ten tracks featuring keyboardist Merl Saunders and various lineups recorded between 1990 and 1996 is a raw to amazing collection of largely well-known staples. The disc opens with a 12-minute live jam on "You Can Leave Your Hat On" featuring Saunders leading off with organ and the vocals. In between there is plenty of time for soloing from harmonica guest John Popper (Blues Traveler). After an intro from the Roland D-50 electric piano, the melody is taken over by Dr. John on acoustic piano for "Paris Blues." Saunders trades vocals with Dr. John, bringing the melody on Hammond B-3 while he sings. A full chorus backs this rich and rare rendition of Saunder's original contemporary piano blues. Along with "Paris Blues," "Built for Comfort" is one of three studio tracks on the album. Popper and Saunders on organ and piano really liven up this Willie Dixon tune, putting the piece to work as a showcase for Saunders' nimble piano fingers and Popper's masterful harp. While you are treated to Saunders' blues-inflected rock vocals up to this point, particularly impressive is Saunders trading his jazz tenor with Maria Muldaur's versatile mezzo-soprano on "Gee Baby Ain't I Good to you." Backing nearly all of these tracks is guitarist Michael Hinton, bassist Michael Warren, and drummer Vince Littleton. Along with Saunders, this makes the Rainforest Band of the '90s. Without any guest assistance, this lineup provides an unforgettable, chaotic presentation of "Dark Star" (Grateful Dead). Without the Rainforest Band, Saunders accompanies mandolinist David Grisman on a reflective and emotional piano and strings rendering of Gershwin's "Summertime." After Trey Anastasio throws an appearance and guitar solo into Allen Toussaint's "We All Wanna Boogie" comes the most unforgettable selection here, a live version of "I Put a Spell on You." What makes this version so singular is the limpid and commanding vocal delivery made by Mariana on this 1995 recording. Overall, this album is an excellent collection of superbly talented rock collaboration.

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