It is a pretty common occurrence for bands to mature and come in to their own over the course of several years, particularly early in their careers. This may mean changing styles or even personnel, or just becoming a better and more cohesive ensemble. In most cases these bands are usually made up of younger musicians, who are filled with talent but lack experience. There are, however, some bands that buck that trend, and The Wood Brothers are one of them.
The core members of The Wood Brothers are Oliver and Chris Wood, who are, in fact, brothers. Oliver is a singer/guitarist, while Chris is a bassist, who also plays harmonica and sings on occasion. Chris is a fairly well known, being a member of Medeski Martin & Wood, while Oliver played in the lesser-known southern blues-rock outfit King Johnson. The two brothers teamed up in 2005 and started crafting some very well written and competent folk-blues tunes. Over the course of their first three releases, Ways Not To Lose, Loaded, and an extended EP of covers, Up Above My Head, the brothers continuously performed as a guitar and bass duo, even though several of their songs were recorded with drums and other instruments. I saw them twice during this period, once in 2008 and once in 2009. Both times, they were stellar, but there was something missing, especially on some of their more upbeat material.
In 2011, the Brothers released their third full-length album, Smoke Ring Halo. I recall listening to it and being amazed at what I was hearing. They had made a giant leap in what they were putting out and their sound finally sounded full and complete. This is not to say that their previous albums were sub-par, they are actually all fantastic, but there was definitely something about this new album that got me. Ironically, every track had drums on them, and though I doubt that this was the main reason for my feelings about the record, it definitely helped the group.
That fall, they toured in support of their latest release, and played in Lawrence, KS, where I was living at the time, so I went to see them. The show was easily the best of theirs that I had seen, and a big reason was that they were touring with a drummer, Jano Rix (formerly of The Gabe Dixon Band). Having a consistent percussive presence completed and rounded out the band’s sound, allowing their songs to have the proper emotion and energy. And let me tell you, the crowd responded with the same emotion and energy the group put out, which is something I had not seen in the previous two shows I had been present on.
Thankfully, the group captured all of this on tape, recording every show on the tour in order to put out two live albums, Live, Volume 1: Sky High and Live, Volume 2: Nail & Tooth, which were released this year; the first in May and the second this past week (August 28). Though I question why they decided to release two separate albums (since all 15 songs could’ve fit on to one CD), I do not question the music that appears on them.
These two albums truly showcase what The Wood Brothers are about, and are probably the best representation of their music. The band sounds like a cohesive unit, with stellar vocal harmonies and fantastic musical interplay, and as I stated earlier, the energy they produce just oozes from every track. The two best examples of this are “One More Day,” off of Volume 1, and “Shoofly Pie,” from Volume 2. Not only is the band totally on fire on both performances, but you can also hear how energized and excited the crowds were. Interestingly, the original version of “One More Day” has no drums, and while you can hear the funkiness that is innate in the duo version from Ways Not To Lose, the song just takes off with the presence of Rix. Other standouts from the two albums include “Glad,” “Payday,” “Made It Up the Mountain,”* and “Luckiest Man”* (which is probably the group’s best song) from Volume 1, and “When I Was Young,” “Ain’t No More Cane,”* “Get Out My Life Woman,” and “Atlas”* from Volume 2. (All songs with a * next to them feature Clay Cook.)
As you may remember in my entry Why Concerts are Important to Me, I stated that live shows really show the true essence of a band or artist. In terms of The Wood Brothers, this is the absolute truth. While their studio albums are all fantastic, their real identity lies within Live, Volume 1 and Live, Volume 2. It may have taken them a few years to figure out what their sound should be, but The Wood Brothers have, in my mind, finally found it. So I’d be keeping an eye and both ears open for what these guys have in store for the future, because if their music continues on the path it’s on now, we’re all in store for some amazing material.