For half a century, the much-recorded bluesman John Lee Hooker has cut music so primal, it blurs into itself — his albums often seem interchangeable, his great signature songs recorded to the nth. He defeats this tendency with The Best of Friends, a compilation on which such admiring colleagues as Eric Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt help him reprise the likes of “Boogie Chillen,” “Boom Boom” and “I’m in the Mood,” respectively. Three of the album’s tracks, among them the Grammy-winning Raitt duet, go back to 1989’s mostly collaborative The Healer. Others cherry-pick his Nineties catalog, and three, including the pace-setting “Boogie Chillen,” were cut for this project.
Rock & rollers cotton to Hooker because, like Elmore James and, for that matter, Chuck Berry, he has a hook: the boogie beat, a vamping drone that’s propulsive at any speed. But reduced to slow one-chord guitar and ageless Delta vocals, as on this album’s solo showpiece, “Tupelo,” his groove can be pretty foreboding even though its darkness is full of subtle color. The guests, all instrumental except for Raitt and his old fan Van Morrison, open it up. Special kudos to Hispanic interpreters Los Lobos, who rock into his boogie, and Carlos Santana, who, with two different bands, bends “The Healer” and “Chill Out” into polyrhythmic workouts. And, hey, give the drummers some — eight, all told, every one of a single mind and a single beat, a beat that gathers detail only when it’s stated outright.