The Wood Brothers
Mod Club, Toronto
Wednesday, December 8th
If you’d never heard of the Wood Brothers, you wouldn’t be alone. No – they’re not budding porn stars, nor are they lumberjacks. Think Medeski, Martin and Wood and you’ll recall why the name sounds familiar, as Chris Wood of that ensemble is the more famous of the two. Older brother, Oliver, is no slouch musically, either.
Originally from Boulder, Colorado, the two played together at family functions before Chris headed to New York and Oliver, to Atlanta. Both cities provide an interesting reference for their project together.
As Chris earned a name for himself in jazz and avante-garde circles as the Medeski, Martin and Wood signature groove grew their reputation, eventually embraced in jam band circles, brother Oliver formed King Johnson (derived from Freddie King and Robert Johnson), which nicely sums up his contribution to the duo.
What you get in the bargain is almost what you’d expect – a basic blues-based southerner championing acoustic guitar and vocals affected by a bit of a drawl, combined with Chris’s fat, sprawling tone and always-exploratory directions from his well-weathered acoustic bass.
Added to this mix was the sensational, most colourful percussion added by drummer Christian Dugas. This fueled the jazzy take on traditional blues adding a spirited kick to what is, otherwise, rather simple music. Add in their brotherly harmonies, Chris’ harp and Oliver’s gifts on slide guitar – and you’ve got something rather unique, played with heart and driven by a desire to create something novel, rather eclectically so.
Like a mash-up of the Tarbox Ramblers to the genre-bending Avett Brothers, with a slight dusting of early Timbuk 3 at their homespun, folksy best. But while the Ramblers looked back with drunken abandon, the Woods look forward with a more laidback feel, give or take Chris’ powerfully inventive bass leads. Primitive, yet progressive. Yet even simple songs are lifted into something irresistible through the skilled hands of the players. Without question, Chris’ bass catapults their sound into space, reinforced, if not driven by Dugas’ funky percussion as Oliver’s approach keeps the music on the ground, delivering thoughtful lyrics and heartfelt sentiment.
There were many highlights, including two from their forthcoming CD, Smoke Ring Halo: “When I Was Young” and “Mary Anna” – big on harmonies with more of a folkish, country feel. “Where My Baby Might Be” provided a vehicle for both brothers as the harp-led track caused Oliver to break away for a slide solo while brother Chris remained in hot pursuit, maintaining a hypnotic groove with each bigger-than-life pull on his bass strings.
The solid “Postcards From Hell” brought that Avett-like, jam feeling as the audience sang along, lyrics committed to heart. The evening’s best song was the lively – if not downright funky – “Shoofly Pie” from the new album, with its distinctively wicked bass intro and cool, fun harmonies – so good, the audience was rendered silent. Not unlike Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken”, this song best represents what the Wood Brothers are capable of, although they returned for an encore with their signature “Luckiest Man” – an uplifting, incredibly positive celebration of being alive.
Kudos to guest and show opener Clay Cook (from the Zac Brown Band), who added significant chemistry, if not a degree of zest with his powerful vocal support and lap steel guitar. In fact, the addition of that one extra instrument appeared to relax the other players, especially for a relatively rowdy rendition of “Loaded”. The set closer, prior to the encore, was the upbeat “Atlas”, translating to a gutsy, soulful energy approaching zydeco, reinforced by Chris’ spidery, elastic bass leads, Oliver’s slide and Dugas’ personal arsenal of inventive percussive treats.
If there’s a downside to this music, it’s that the Wood Brothers seem self-absorbed in their material, rarely smiling or talking to their fans. Fortunately, Dugas and Cook picked up the slack, providing the missing ingredients to bind the audience tightly to the music. Once that was in place, the rest of us were putty in their hands. At first blush, Chris and Oliver Woods appear to come from opposite sides of the musical spectrum yet, side-by-side on stage, they successfully forge a smart new category of music that is as deceptively simple as it is rewarding, through an appreciation for the diversity of its individual parts.