A Wood Brothers show can veer off into a number of different, closely related musical territories. It’s one part intimate, singer-songwriter showcase, with Oliver Wood’s well-crafted compositions and whiskey-honed voice front and center and rich harmonies all over the place. It’s another part jam-band rock, with stinging solo bursts from Oliver’s guitar, and especially with the contributions of bassist Chris Wood, who made his name in the music business with groove-jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood. And it’s a third part straight-up, chug-along blues-rock, with Oliver’s distorted slide guitar slicing through the mix. The whole package cuts along the grains of several complementary traditions of American roots music — blues, soul, gospel, folk. It depends what you’re listening for.

A new seven-song record, Live, Volume 1: Sky High, released last week as the first of a series, covers much of that ground; “One More Day” is steeped in blues and swampy hybrid New Orleans/Bo Diddley rhythms, as Chris’ percussive bass bounces along over drummer Jano Rix’s beat. Oliver’s songs, “Luckiest Man,” for example, or “Smoke Ring Halo,” sound like something you’ve heard before — maybe even know really well — while still managing to sound original. “It’s called ‘feeling,’” Oliver says during a phone conversation. “I’m half kidding. It’s a combination of things. I think that all of us musicians, whether we are completely avant garde or conventional, are influenced by other music, you know? Depending on your influences and what your passion is, you cannot avoid that influence showing itself in your own compositions. I’m a huge fan of some great old stuff: Bob Dylan, the Band, Lightning Hopkins, New Orleans music. There’s no way I can avoid some of that stuff showing.”

 

 

For Wood, much of the craft of writing has to do with the music a songwriter digests along the way to finding his or her own style. “I think for me,” he said, “if I really get something right — and I’ve got plenty of clunkers — but when it works, I feel it has a classic, timeless quality. When I listen to contemporary people, that’s what turns me on, at least subconsciously. If it’s new and original, I like the idea that it sounds original, or that it could be popular 30 years from now. That’s the mark of something that’s really great.”

The Wood Brothers are four years apart; Oliver is the older of the two. They grew up in Boulder, Colo., the sons of a musical father and poet mother. “Our dad plays guitar and sings,” Oliver says, “and he was very good. He could have gone the pro route. He gets vicarious pleasure through us.” He ultimately became a biologist, although, Wood says, he was serious about music as a young man. “He had a huge repertoire of songs. Our first exposure to live music was my dad at the campfire singing tunes. Our mom passed away, but she was a really great poet.”

What’s fascinating about the Wood Brothers’ sound is the balance between Chris’ classical/jazz training and Oliver’s ability to write traditional, very American-sounding songs. It’s a tension that plays out not only in live settings but when they sit down to write, adding a level of complexity not present in many other roots-rock acts, though it’s perhaps misguided to think of it as slapping two completely separate musical styles together.


“When you read Chris’ bio,” Oliver says, “you get what his formal education was like. But the reality is that Chris and I both went to music school. Real music school is when you get out and play with people. Chris is a great improviser. Even though he’s classically trained, his musicality came not from any school but more like my schooling, playing thousands of shows and practicing. That’s a more accurate picture of our backgrounds. We went out and played, though we did it in different styles.”

Oliver’s band prior to founding the Wood Brothers was King Johnson, an Atlanta-based act he says was just as much of a roots band, with plenty of improvisation thrown in. “It was very wide open with horns, sort of like Little Feat,” he says. “There were songs but also soloists and listening and improvising, not in a jazz context but more like New Orleans R&B.” On the surface, it seems inevitable that he’d team up with his brother, but it was a gradual process.

“It’s really several levels,” Oliver says. “On the one hand, Chris and I live in different parts of the country, and we traveled in different circles. We’d see each other once a year when we were home for the holidays. We did grow apart. So part of it is a chance to reconnect, just the need to spend time together, which is really the best part of what we are doing.”

“The other thing,” Wood continues, “is when we were both teenagers, we included each other back then too in what we were doing. We both went separate ways. We learned our craft. We got to where we were professionals. It was really fun to get back together and bring our skills together, and the way it came about was just that we really got together at a family function and brought some guitars when we had extra days. We started to record some things, and we just connected.”

Another thing that links the brothers, in addition to their shared love of roots music, is their ability to embrace anything. “Even I listened to Miles Davis and [Charles] Mingus,” Oliver says, “even though I focused more on the Band and B.B. King, whereas [Chris] focused on the Miles.” Before they started playing together regularly nearly a decade ago, the brothers traded music. “He turned me on to Mingus and I turned him onto other things,” Wood says. “Our influences are the same, and a lot of people don’t know that. The backgrounds we have play out in how our music develops. On some songs, we can improvise to a certain degree. Other times it’s just a song form without a whole lot of variation. But it is cool to have someone like Chris who is a virtuoso who can really raise the bar musically, and I get a lot of that from him, and I influence him in the singing and songwriting.”

Both brothers like to improvise. “That’s definitely what we’ve both brought to the table,” Wood says. “I love to improvise and I love how you can improvise when you are composing, to come up with something new. We do that when we write... Chris has become a great singer and songwriter.”

These days, there are plenty of other acts making music that connects with Wood. “I like things like the Avett Brothers,” Wood says. “They have an old and new thing, a young energy and old-sounding music. I like the Black Keys. I’m still a huge fan of Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, R.L. Burnside, Derek Trucks. They are taking old stuff and making it personal.”

Write to mhamad@hartfordadvocate.com. Follow me on Twitter @MikeHamad

Post Your Comment Below