Ways Not To Lose, the 2006 debut from the Wood Brothers had, in a sense, been a lifetime in the making—the first public collaboration between vocalist and guitarist Oliver Wood, who fronts Atlanta-based blues band King Johnson, and upright bassist Chris Wood, of the long-running, genre-blasting trio Medeski Martin and Wood. As players, they displayed an easy-going virtuosity; as siblings, they had an extraordinary rapport. Their folk and acoustic blues tunes, tinged with gospel hopefulness and country melancholy, were welcomed like old friends by both fans and pundits. National Public Radio named their debut disc one of their top ten discoveries that year. Rolling Stone declared, “The flip, easygoing party music on ‘Lose’ disguises sneakily deep inquiries into what it means to be alive, struggle with temptation, and every once in a while seek some truth.”
With Loaded, the Wood Brothers engage in a more expansive musical dialogue that commenced well before they hit the studio; they collaborated for the first time on writing material together. John Medeski, returning as producer, got into the mix as the songs were just taking shape, and he plays keyboards on several tracks. The crew, working at a studio near Woodstock, New York, opened up the sessions to other musicians and friends—singers Amos Lee, Pieta Brown and Frazey Ford, steel guitarist Darick Campbell, violinists David Mansfield and Jennifer Choi, cellist David Eggar, drummers Billy Martin and Kenny Wolleson, and percussionist Donnie McCormick—making this a more fleshed-out, multi-layered band effort compared to the spare, live-in-the-studio approach of Ways Not To Lose.
Oliver still does the lead singing, in a voice that is, by turns, weathered, wounded or yearning, but Chris takes his first lead-vocals turn at the mic on the gentle “Don’t Look Back,” bolstered by Frazey Ford of Canadian roots music trio The Be Good Tanyas. Jokes Chris, “After being in an instrumental band for eighteen years, it was pretty weird to be stuck in front a microphone. When MMW fans see us play, they say, that’s the first time I ever heard you speak, much less sing.”
“We initially just brought our songs and our musicianship to the table,” continues Chris, “We had a chemistry that was good and we captured that on the first record. It’s been almost two years now and, having played constantly for the last two years together and written things together, we’ve just evolved. We have different things to say, different things are happening in our lives, and we combined our efforts much more. That combined voice has taken us to a different place and this record illustrates that.”
Songwriting, as well as playing gigs, became an important connection for the brothers, as Oliver explains, “Chris and I live pretty far apart, so unless we’re on the road, we really don’t see each other. A lot of times one of us will start a song, introduce some music or some lyric. It took a little while, but we got used to the idea of getting the other person involved to where both of us have our hearts invested in a song. That’s a different feeling than, ‘Hey, here’s my song, let’s play it together.’ It’s different for both of us to have something at stake there.”
Most importantly, their songwriting and playing got them through some tough times for their family, Oliver says, “We lost our mom last spring to ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was deteriorating over the last year or two, so we couldn’t help but have that influence what we were feeling and what we were writing about. It’s a unique situation because we are working together, but we’re also family, so we were both hit in kind of the same way by the passing of our mom. That definitely shows up in the music quite a bit.”
Loaded is bookended with a pair of wistful tunes, ”Lovin’ Arms” and “Still Close,” that address loss but also hint at spiritual regeneration. That’s a theme that recurs throughout the album. For the Wood Brothers, the blues offer solace from downheartedness; there’s a soulful quality in their work that grows increasingly compelling—not to mention, comforting—the more familiar these songs become. “Postcards From Hell” takes the Robert Johnson legend and flips it, telling the story of a singer who manages to keep his sound pure by closely guarding his soul. “Pray Enough” brings humor to a gospel exhortation, with label-mate Amos Lee joining in on backup vocals. (Lee reappears later in the album to swap verses of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” with Oliver.) And there’s real tenderness to “Walkaway,” an understatedly arranged breakup number in shuffle time, with drums from Chris’s MMW band-mate Billy Martin.
Along with “Angel,” the Wood Brothers cover the traditional “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor,” turning it into a loose back-porch jam highlighted by Donnie McCormick who adds vocals and percussion by rhythmically scratching the wires of a chicken coop (“with no chickens in it,” Oliver hastens to add). The lilting melody of Bob Dylan’s “Buckets Of Rain” unfolds in a beautiful slo-mo tempo, with Oliver playing stop-start guitar leads. He hesitates before singing each line, as if he’s pulling poetry right out of the air. Says Chris, “Oliver has a magical way of playing behind the beat, an amazing laid back thing, one of those indescribable things that you can’t teach. Either you’ve got it or you don’t.”
Though the pair had a good time in the studio with their extended lineup, they plan to hit the road again simply as a duo. Multi-tasking on their individual instruments, they can cook up a mighty groove or create a seriously laid-back mood. Oliver admits, “There is something special about performing as a duo, a uniqueness to it, whereas oftentimes a group with drums and keyboards doesn’t stand out as much. In some ways we really stand out as a duo, making a whole bunch of a racket with just the two of us.”
Chris concurs: “There is a certain flexibility we have as just the two of us that we are learning to take advantage of more and more. When you don’t have a drummer back there, you can really play with the rhythm, slow down a phrase or speed it up, and be more liquid that way.”
Expect to see—and hear—a lot more of the Wood Brothers this year, on tour and on Loaded. And count on being treated like family.
Live On Stage:
For those who don't know The Wood Brother is the side project of Chris Wood from MMW fame. The brothers together produce sort of rootsy, laid-back blues infused pop music - sort of in the Jack Johnson, G. Love vein. Here's Luckiest Man off their debut album...
We'll go with another clip from Pickathon 2006, here's Chevrolet...
Here's a show for your downloading pleasure....
The Wood Brothers - 2007-08-23 - Thursday at the Square - Lafayette Square - Buffalo, NY
I cobbled together this playlist, not too much of The Wood Brothers floating around, but enjoy...
For more on The Wood Brothers hit up their official site.
Sunday, April 6, 2008