One has to think back a while to remember that before the Distant Worlds series came about, Final Fantasy orchestral concerts and albums were something of a rare event. The 2005 concert "More Friends: Music from Final Fantasy" was one of the first in North America, and this corresponding album was only the second made available to the public to span the music of the series (following "20020220" before it). Now that Final Fantasy concert series have flourished and series-wide orchestral albums have come to approach double digits, More Friends no longer offers any unique arrangements over the albums that have followed it, though quality performances and an energetic live recording may still give it appeal to diehard fans.
The first seven tracks make up the purely orchestral segment of the album. Even a casual Final Fantasy music collector will find them very familiar, as each track is a mainstay of the Distant Worlds series. Four of those seven tracks can be found on the first Distant Worlds album, while another two can be found on the second. Unfortunately many other great Final Fantasy arrangements from the Distant Worlds albums, like "Vamo' alla Flamenco", "Liberi Fatali", "Dear Friends" and "Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII", can't be found here. The one orchestral track on More Friends that the Distant Worlds albums don't have is the venerable main series theme, and most fans likely have an arrangement of that in some form already.
Though the music selection offers nothing unique, the performances by the "World Festival Symphony Orchestra" of Los Angeles fare quite well. In particular the recording of "Aerith's Theme" is the best I've heard. I'm not one to go gaga over that particular theme but it's undeniably pretty when done right, and the performance here is exquisite. The other performances fall in the middle of the Final Fantasy performance repertoire. "Zanarkand" and "Terra" I find more moving in their Distant Worlds 2 versions, while "Opening ~ Bombing Mission" has more energy than the Distant Worlds 1 recording but less than the "Distant Worls: Returning Home" one.
In its second half of the album the focus shifts away from the orchestra a bit. In fact in tracks 8 and 9 the orchestra takes a break altogether to allow two performances by Final Fantasy rock unit The Black Mages. I very much enjoy the high-energy, melodic rock that The Black Mages put forth in their two initial albums (both selections here are taken from the second), and I understand how their inclusion was likely quite the thrill for most of the audience, but in context of the album these tracks are completely out of place. Were two of the very best tracks Black Mages arrangements selected, or the live performance comparably in quality to the studio album versions, or the highly talented orchestra actually included in the performance, it would make their presence much easier to appreciate. Unfortunately none of these are the case.
From track 10 The Black Mages retire for a while and the orchestra returns, accompanied by some special guest vocalists. First is Rikki's performance of "Suteki da ne" from FFX. I like the fluttering, wistful quality of her vocals in the OST version and her live performance comes close, although her voice sounds on the brink of fading away altogether at times. The orchestral arrangement of the original ethnic instrumentation is fairly standard stuff - not as cliched as it could be but not adding anything substantial either. Next comes "The Place I'll Return to Someday ~ Melodies of Life" from FFIX, featuring Emiko Shiratori. Her vocal performance is pretty, though not divinely beautiful to the point of the OST version, and the instrumentals are similar to the original if perhaps a bit too deliberate in performance style. Both recordings are nice but I wouldn't say they hold special appeal to owners of the OST versions.
The other major vocal piece is "Opera Maria and Draco" from FFVI. Being the same arrangement as the one later featured in Distant Worlds it shares the same issues, mainly that in order to fit the numerous sections of the opera into a twelve-minute span, some have been given less development than they deserve, and the climactic "Grand Finale" has been omitted entirely. That said, the performance doesn't feel as rushed as the Distant Worlds version and the vocals of the three soloists are superior, making the simplistic English lyrics more tolerable. The classic arrangement in Orchestral Game Concert 4 is more complete, and the version in Final Fantasy Orchestral Album with its new rock-operatic finale is more fun, but this is the best English language version available for what it's worth.
For the concert finale the Black Mages join the orchestra to perform "Advent: One Winged Angel" from FFVII Advent Children. This heavily revised take on the fan-favorite choral battle theme almost makes for the grand finale it's meant to be, but for almost everything it does right it does something else wrong. Among the right are some nice electric guitar solos, one of the stronger choral performances in a OWA recording yet, and a pretty rocking orchestra and chorus-assisted climax. Among the wrong are some distractingly simple backing guitars, and altered lyrics that at best lack the phonetic impact of the original and at worst sound like the improvisations of a babbling six year old. Again I'm sure the performance made a fan-friendly conclusion for much of the live audience, but on album its shortcomings are too apparent.
This being a live album the audience applause is included at the end of every track, and during "Swing de Chocobo" they're pretty lively during the track as well. Normally that would annoy me but in this case it's fun hearing the enthusiastic audience response (though it is a bit odd hearing woots and girlish squeals at the end of the poignant themes for Aerith and Zanarkand). As with many concert albums you can also hear small rustles and such from within the concert hall at times, but it's not a major distraction.
Judging "Dear Friends: Music from Final Fantasy" by its selection of music alone, there's no way I could recommend it over later Final Fantasy orchestral albums. The Distant Worlds albums in particular offer virtually every arrangement featured here plus many more, and likely at a cheaper domestic price. Selection-wise the album's only trump card is its two Japanese vocal pieces from FFIX and FFX, and that only for people who don't own the OSTs. That said the recordings are on the whole solid, the recording for "Aerith's Theme" excellent, and the live feel of the concert is more exciting than the polite but generally anemic audience reactions of the Japanese live albums. For hardcore Final Fantasy music collectors specifically interested in a live audio-only concert album, Final Fantasy More Friends fits that bill. Everyone else should look to more recent releases for their Final Fantasy orchestral fix.