Drummer Pete York emerged from the Spencer Davis Group with Steve Winwood, Spencer Davis, and Muff Winwood, and it is commendable that without the name recognition of his three colleagues, York has amassed a body of work that demands an in-depth scorecard. This three-CD box is a beautifully packaged collection from 1984, 1985, and 1988, with the CDs pressed on black and resembling mini-LPs, even with grooves painted on the face. What the box fails to note is that all three of these live albums have been previously released with the same titles, although under different artists' names. And that aspect of the project muddies the waters for the fans -- and even for York himself. Disc one is from October 1, 1984, and features 14 tracks titled Live Together with Spencer Davis and Colin Hodgkinson participating. It is actually the Live Together album released multiple times starting in 1988 and credited to Spencer Davis, Pete York, and Colin Hodgkinson. You get the hits of the Spencer Davis Group and more, which, of course, you could also get if you picked up Angel Air's Spencer Davis Group Live in Manchester 2002. The version of "Gimme Some Lovin" here sounds like a drunken barroom at 3 A.M., long after closing time -- while the rendition on Manchester 2002 rocks out more. After four decades, this material has been played on thousands and thousands of stages and there's nothing extraordinary here, though true fans, of course, appreciate the redundancy.
Disc two is named Steaming -- by Pete York with Brian Auger and Colin Hodgkinson -- and is also a Brian Auger release on its own. Out of the three albums here, this one has the most dynamic recording and will actually call out for repeated spins. Auger's keyboard sound is immense and York's drumming reacts to the greatness with a subtle showcase of his own skills -- a display of the man's unique drumming technique -- not just mere run-throughs of his favorites songs, which is the direction the other two discs take. Donovan's "Season of the Witch" drifts off into different dimensions after they've played the melody out, while "Prelude to a Kiss" is dreamy -- and could have been recorded at someone's wedding. In a bizarre way, this heavy jazz album from April 19, 1985, is the most poppy of all the CDs included here. The third disc, Extremely Live at Birmingham Town Hall, is from July 1988, with bassist Hodgkinson, Miller Anderson on guitar, and Zoot Money on keyboards along with Spencer Davis and Chris Farlowe, the latter of whom comes in halfway through to sing titles by Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, and T-Bone Walker. The material is well performed, as one would imagine, which is exactly the point -- that you can imagine what this would sound like before putting it into the player! The rendition of "Watching the River Flow" doesn't add anything that Dylan's mystique and legend could benefit from; in fact, Farlowe has more biting renditions out there than this one -- try the Wine, Women & Song various-artists compilation for an example. But it is also hard not to be respectful of these gents and their work, and since this three-CD package is not a total bust, it is, as they say, better to have more than less.
With the elegant packaging, the Inakustik label should have gone the extra mile and included an extended booklet. The casual listener would probably find the story as appealing as the music -- and without liner notes the project tends to aim for the audience that already has versions of these songs that sound so much alike, at least on CDs one and three. The uninitiated just will not be able to tell the music apart from disc to disc. Recorded on different years during the 1980s, the sound is surprisingly consistent...and very similar. With Ginger Baker's Air Force and so many Ringo Starr live packages including famous friends, Pete York's performances need just a bit more star power. Perhaps if they added practice sessions from Eric Clapton's Powerhouse or a lost live tape, this unique package could garner a bit more attention. On its own, Pete York & Friends is a nice collectible for those who appreciate British rock and blues musicians, especially the rhythm section of York and Hodgkinson, who are the one constant from disc to disc. It's just that you've heard most of this many times before.