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July 12, 2024

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Merl Saunders With His Funky Friends
LIVE! (Sumertone Records)

By: Paula M. Sherman

Blues music is recipe some say is best served in the summertime. But I feel it is a necessary year round meal. I'm honored to review this one, from a 35 year musical icon releasing his 20th recording. Merl Saunders, a native of the San Francisco bay area, is a distinguished multi-talented artist. For more than three decades, Saunders has enjoyed what most artists only dream of. A legendary singer and composer as well as a keyboardist and producer, Saunders kicks it up again with his friends. His new release entitled "Merl Saunders With His Funky Friends" is filled with live performances across the United States from Wetlands in NYC to the House of Blues in LA.

The goose bumps I experienced listening to this music led to cherished tears toward the end. Let me explain why. Among Merl's funky friends is John Popper of Blues Traveler, unleashing his phenomenal harmonica talent in the very first thrilling blues song entitled "You Can't Leave Your Hat On." This live version runs for 12:17, and it STILL isn't long enough! The next amazing soul song is "Paris Blues" with Saunders and Dr. John on keyboards. The naturalness of this arrangement will sweep you off your feet. Followed up with the spunky "Built For Comfort", with the best damn combination of Saunders at piano and organ, Michael Hinton's guitar work, and the shake-your-booty harmonica that only Popper can deliver, this song ROCKS!

Slowing down with the sweeter side of blues, Saunders and Maria Muldaur create a swooning romantic feel in "Gee Baby Ain't I Good To You". Saunders and Hinton take the Grateful Dead's dramatic "Dark Star" and deliver it with the same if not more intense passion. The sound of peaceful mandolins bring a euphoria to the next song, "Summertime." Then with guitarist Trey Anastasio, Saunders and the band pump it up with "We All Wanna Boogie."

Classic blues is continued with "I Put A Spell On You" and "My Problems Got Problems" leaving the most satisfying mellow feeling which prepares you for the last song. The last song is "Sunrise Over Haleakala" and Saunders performs this song with his beloved friend Jerome Garcia (aka Jerry Garcia for all you Dead heads out there). This song, recorded prior to Garcia's death in 1995, is simply the most beautiful tune I have ever heard. Saunders' delicate piano playing and Garcia's sweet loving guitar riffs brought tears to my eyes. On the last note of this song, you'll feel like you just experienced something so special, so spiritual, so inspiring. I really don't know how else to explain it. The music moved me so much it formed a lump in my throat at the end.

I urge all you blues lovers to get this one. In rating "Merl Saunders With His Funky Friends" I will just say, it's peaceful soul-moving perfection. More on Merl Saunders next month.

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