Just before plucking the opening chords of “Stumbled In” on the band’s upcoming live album, Live Vol. 1 Sky High, Oliver Wood poses a simple question to the audience assembled before the band he shares with bassist brother Chris and drummer Jano Rix: “Anybody going to church tomorrow?” he deadpans.
While The Wood Brothers might not extol any particular religious values, this off-the-cuff, marginally sarcastic comment elicits applause, whistles and shouts. As Oliver later confesses, the lurching tune is more about “the spiritual benefits of a nightclub” than a loftier pursuit, but the atmosphere created at a Wood Brothers gig is not unlike an old-school revival; there’s a whole lot of sweatin’, shoutin’, stompin’ and singin’ happening.
The band’s fusion of folk, blues, jazz and classic R&B has evolved dramatically in its existence, and there’s no clearer proof than the in-the-moment magic of this matched set of live albums, which will be released several months apart.
Since forming roughly eight years ago, the brothers Wood have transformed from a stripped-down, roots-rock-inspired duo with jazz leanings to a rollicking trio capable of holding their own in 10,000-seat arenas opening for the Zac Brown Band, captivating theaters filled with a thousand fans or holding sway over 200 patrons in a small rock club.
“The songs were arranged in a certain way so that we could play just the two of us,” guitarist and primary vocalist Oliver recalls of the band’s earlier days. “We’ve been playing a lot of these songs for a few years, and we added a drummer, as well, so we wanted to put out some of the old music again in its new, different sound and capture what we’ve been doing the past couple of years live.
“We kind of captured it on our latest album, Smoke Ring Halo, because that was a real trio album,” he adds, “but it’s been great for the fans to hear how all of the music has evolved.”
Beyond the addition of percussion—and occasional lap steel with Zac Brown band member Clay Cook guesting on Sky High, as well as other frequent collaborators—the Woods’ songs have the benefit of time, talent and hindsight, and Chris and Oliver have been able to tweak the tunes as much or little as needed. So, in an interesting twist, the double album—15 songs total, culled from recordings captured during a 20-date tour of the States—essentially afforded the band an opportunity to record more polished versions of several songs that had appeared on previous studio albums.
“We only had two weeks to make one album in particular,” Oliver says, “and some of the arrangements were made on the fly. We wished we had more time to work on it, so the arrangements evolved naturally for a few of those songs. Now we have, in my opinion, better versions of songs that were already good.”
Although Chris and Oliver have an undeniable musical chemistry, it took them many years to recognize and acknowledge it. Both men left their childhood home in Colorado after their respective high school graduations. After a pit stop or two, Oliver ultimately landed on the Atlanta rock scene, while Chris headed directly for New York City with the aim of “becoming a sideman for a well-known jazz musician.”
Though he had several notable projects along the way, Oliver’s main gig was in forming and fronting the blues/roots band King Johnson, while Chris formed instrumental jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, a band in which he still plays.
“It didn’t really occur to us that we wanted to play together that early on,” Oliver says. “I think we wanted to get out in the world and find our own paths. For whatever reason, we chose different paths.”
The two essentially spent 15 years in infrequent contact before recognizing their connection and common potential through a shared encounter.
During a show in North Carolina with MMW and King Johnson sharing the bill, Oliver sat in with his brother’s band, and the two talented musicians finally recognized and appreciated their connection.
“It was just really strange the way that I recognized every musical gesture that he did,” Chris remembers of the show. “It was like looking in a mirror; I just got it. At that point, it was obvious that we should make music together.”
As The Wood Brothers, Oliver’s soulful, Van Morrison-meets-Freddie King vocals weave unforgettable melodies on top of his gritty and nimble slide guitar while Chris’ jazz-inspired double bass pulses underneath the surface, his high lonesome harmonies soaring far above the fray. Behind it all, Rix’s drums lend additional weight to the music and his vocal harmonies allow the trio to add even more dynamics than were previously possible. Although the final product is perhaps more accessible than either King Johnson or MMW, there is an effortless depth that has yielded an ever-growing batch of songs that sound impossibly accomplished.
MMW’s John Medeski, who produced the first two Wood Brothers albums, Ways not to Lose and Loaded, once said, “I can’t tell you how many of Oliver’s songs I thought were old traditional standards. They just sound classic.”
“Stumbled In,” as well as live album’s volume one closer, “Luckiest Man,” and the soulful “Made it up the Mountain,” all sound like imports from a bygone era, so much so that volume one’s lone cover—Mississippi John Hurt’s “Pay Day”—sounds more like an original when played in the context of Chris and Oliver’s own compositions.
Though all three members of the band maintain residences in different states—a situation that the brothers plan to address within the year, as they work to further cement the band’s status as a can’t-miss live act with a stable of amazing songs—they have a work ethic while on the road that enables them to write new material while continually honing the “old” stuff; the results of the live album are tangible proof of the band’s desire and ability to evolve.
“You get over some kind of hump and you get just burned out enough to where you know the music inside and out,” Chris said. “You stop caring about everything going perfectly, and that’s when the magic things happen.”
The Wood Brothers are:
Oliver Wood / Guitar & Vocals
Chris Wood / Bass & Vocals
Jano Rix / Percussion, Melodica & Vocals
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