So, I was a tad over on the side of excited when I received the message about The Wood Brothers coming to town. I caught them last fall at Lockn’, that fun-filled four-day music fest in Virginia, and I kind of liked them. I hadn’t heard much of their music prior to that Festival, but since hearing and watching them perform, they had kind of stuck in my head, grew on me, and got to me I suppose. I was not just impressed with their music, but their stage presence as well as the huge crowd they drew that hot, sunny afternoon. Also, I do so enjoy shows at The Fillmore; not so much the lighting – yes it is pretty, but hard to shoot in as you are constantly checking out that meter and wondering when those blue lights will blow it all out – but, the sound system, the crew, the set up, the location, yadda-yadda-yadda.
There was an opening act listed on the bill. Calling themselves Mandolin Orange, they are a duo out of North Carolina, Andrew Marlin on guitar/mandolin and vocals and Emily Frantz, playing the fiddle, guitar and also chiming in on vocals…… There was something about them that sort of reminded me of a young Johnny Cash and June Carter. Not necessarily their voices, but moreover their presence. Especially Andrew to Johnny, the way he holds himself and the way he emotes through the songs. Not that I’ve seen Johnny Cash play, but I have caught some of his performances via the lovely world wide web or maybe it was a PBS special (gotta luv PBS for bringing the music). Anyway, they were sweet up there, just the two of them, sharing warm harmonies, turning simple songs into soulful and honest experiences, and getting every note they could out of their well-warn, and well-loved instruments. Or, maybe they even reminded me a little Tim and Nicki Bluhm, (The Mother Hips and Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers……), especially the sound of their voices and the harmonies made together in that second tune, “Little Worlds”. (Sidebar: well, look at that. Mandolin Orange and Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers will both be on the bill for Del Fest this year…..)
Weaving a little gospel, bluegrass, folk and even some honky tonk, there were songs about taking chances on dreams, mountains and waves, was a waltz about whiskey, there were lyrics of love and war, love lost and memories not forgotten, and even two songs about trains – who doesn’t love a song about trains!? It was all very classic, take me back in time, influences clearly coming from the originators of their style, as in their more than respectable cover of Doc Watson’s, “The Train that Carried My Girl from Town.” A majority of the songs in their set came from their third and newest release, This Side of Jordan, which is available for purchase and digital download from their website. Most of their songs were sung by Andrew, but Emily also had a moment at the mic with, “There Was a Time”, a song about memories of relationships that are gone but not forgotten, and maybe there’s that one that you still can’t get over. I listened to all that was available online to stream, and remain quite impressed by these two. Hope to catch them again sometime. (www.mandolinorange.com)
A short set-break later, and the lights dim once again. The stage has been set – there is an empty wood frame on the wall just waiting for an image to be painted; there is a lamp creating a warm light; on either side of the stage is a large wooden box, or maybe they are pallets poised so, with orange lights glowing through the spaces between the slats of wood. Ambiance…. Mood…. Setting the stage for the musical tales that will be spun. Just a three man outfit, The Wood Brothers are Chris Wood on stand-up bass and often harmonica, Oliver Wood on guitar, and Jano Rix, a multi-instrumentalist and harmonizer who plays the percussive instrument commonly known as the drums as well as the harmonica, melodic, and this thing called a, “shuitar”. Huh? Something Jano has created; it’s basically a pretty shitty acoustic guitar missing some strings and all rigged up with tin cans, noisemakers and such. It is really quite a sight. Anyway, they sure do put out a lot of sound, full and large. And, there is something about siblings harmonizing together… and add in that third voice and its one step closer to being completely full and bright. They’ve got seven (7) releases, live and studio since their first in 2006. So, what’s their story? For 15 years they’d play separately; Chris Wood with Medeski, Martin and Wood (MMW) and Oliver Wood with his band, King Johnson (name comes from strong influences in “The Kings” – B.B., Albert and Freddie – and “The Johnsons” – Robert, Lonnie and others) that he formed after playing for years with Tinsley Ellis, a musician playing that Memphis rhythm and blues style. One evening, Oliver sat in and played with MMW and it was then they realized they should be playing together more. Now we have The Wood Brothers.
Opening with, “Stumbled In”, a heavy assured beat, a little bit of that big band sound you might find in a smoky jazz joint. I can almost see Tom Waits on stage; a cigarette hangs from his lips. Deeply lyrical and poetic with a funky bass, a heavy drum beat and Oliver’s shredding guitar make this one hit ya from all angles. “You make me feel it from my neck down to my feet…..”
The next one, light shines on Chris as he begins to slap the bass….. This won’t be the first time that golden glow is cast over him, making him appear as a bronze statue. A few minutes of a comforting steady beat with a bit of light guitar from Oliver before it crescendos, gets louder and funkier, and Oliver shouts, “Wasting my mind on you!” The first song on their newest release, “Wastin’ My Mind” would be one of seven they’d play from The Muse (2013).
Picking it up a bit more, they move into, “Who the Devil” which is a very jazzy, so ever very jazzy, quick tempo, catchy one…. did I say jazzy? Chris starts out playing the bass with the bow, moving it slowly back and forth across the low strings. Oliver quietly joins in on the electric, strumming a steady rhythm as Jano begins in on the kit. “Well it is what it is, and it isn’t what it ain’t. Doesn’t matter what it was cause you know it’s gonna keep on.” Mid-way through the song, it opens up for a great little jam between Chris and Oliver, and it’s clear why they play together.
Sweet melodies in “Blue and Green” and then “Keep Me Around”, I really liked these two, especially together like that. One smooth soothing moment into the next, and the crowd was harmonizing right along. Jano comes from the drum kit up to an extra mic up front, holding onto this guitar that looks like it lost some strings….. But maybe in place now there are cymbals and things attached all over it. Choosing this over the drum kit brings an extra warmth and softness to this song, just using his hands to create a more muffled sound. I felt very warm and welcomed there, amongst their fans at that moment, for this song. It was a lovely spot; nice people to have around, to keep around.
“The Muse”, another soothing and lovely song about the one who helps him create his music, not by writing a lyric or a note, but by being the reason for it….. The stage was moody, with a single light shining on Oliver as he plays the acoustic, Jano and Chris in the golden shadows, adding soft bass beats and song on the melodic. “If I was thinking, I’d be thinking thank God, whoever you are, for the muse and this old guitar….” Some of these songs keep a pace like a heartbeat, not too fast, not too slow, but just keeping you moving along….. Even their little bar song, “I Got Loaded”; Smooth and swaying along with the crowd, I felt like I too had a few drinks in me!
“Shoefly Pie” sure was fun. This was a super up-beat, danceable song – I mean the whole place was jumpin’ with this one. I remember thinking, what’s the real point in trying to grab a picture, the whole floor was bouncing and I was bouncing right along with it, camera and all. Slapping and sliding around the floor, no way the picture would be sharp! Whatever; enjoy the fun – shoefly pie!!!!!!
While most of their songs were held lyrically by Oliver, like the next one, “Mary Anna”, another very lyrically poetic and softly harmonizing tune with a very soothing strumming guitar, there are a few, like “Losin’ Streak” that put the other brother at the mic. This one starts out with just Chris on the harmonica, humming along, and slowly he begins to add in the bass, a little dub thump of a sort. There’s something about how he uses his voice that reckons a bit back to early Stones, maybe “Sweet Black Angel” from their Exile on Main Street release. I dunno. There’s also a bit of a groove to the way Oliver’s guitar and Chris’s bass run along the same note structure, just a few keys a part, kind of like their voices singing in harmony.
Someone next to me remarks how Oliver has his set list scribbled on a piece of paper hanging from his mic stand. I too had noticed it, and realizing I’d probably not get one and don’t really know the names of each of their songs, I took a quick snap of it for later. Clearly, the set list that Oliver had was a loose guide…… Beck’s “Sing it Again” was replaced with “I Got Loaded”, and maybe what was supposed to be “Up Above My Head” was replaced with this next one, “You’ve Got to Lover Her With a Feeling” by Freddie King. An old blues tune, typically done slow and smooth, in that Freddie kind of way. But, The Wood Brothers add their own funk and strut to it that makes you want to groove. “She shakes all over when she walks. She made a blind man see, she made a dumb man talk. You know she love me with a feeling, a love me with a feeling. Love me with a feeling, baby, or don’t you love at all…..” I almost didn’t recognize it. OK, I didn’t recognize it that night immediately, and it really didn’t matter at all because the whole place was rockin’ it.
For each of those high energy, swampy and funky songs that shuffle, the whole place was moving. The floor of The Fillmore did it’s best to absorb the groove but the give and take from each foot stomp, each confirming heel hit, the whole place was bouncing. Like with, “When I Was Young.” It was so groovy, jazzy, funky……… and had this incredible bass solo! Even Oliver was impressed as he says, “You see that bass player over there? Let’s say I had never met him before, I didn’t know who he was. Well, he’d still be my favorite bass player. Right? Isn’t he your favorite bass player?” And the place screams with agreement!
Well, I had enjoyed the front of the stage for long enough, so I decide to head up to the balcony for the rest of the night, up to more solid ground, and get to use my big lens for a bit. It was good timing too, because Oliver lets the place know they’d be getting mellow for a second, quieting down for a minute. He asks us all to follow them back in time. They bring out an old microphone, Oliver refers to it as another member of the band (Did I hear him say, “Mr. Big White?”). Jano walks back up to the front of the stage and joins Chris and Oliver as they all huddle around. Oliver says, “Pay attention now, or I’ll have to shush you.” He wants it quiet enough to hear a pin drop. The crowd, for the most part, was quite respectful to the request. I thought I heard this one get dedicated to their Mom….. “Don’t Look Back” is another one sung by Chris, accompanied by a simple guitar, softly played melodic and warm harmonies.
For a little more fun, as if we weren’t having enough already, they invite Andrew and Emily from Mandolin Orange back out to join them for a few. Oliver quips that they’d still be keeping it mellow for a minute and play another gospel tune. The crowd quiets again, ready for another soulful experience…. as they go into Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels” followed by The Beatles’ “Fixing a Hole”. Both a tad on the good side of a surprise, as all I saw on the set list were “Feels” and “Hole”, and since I wasn’t familiar with all of The Wood Brothers’ discography, these could have been their songs for all I knew. Looking out over the crowd, so many people were singing along, raising a glass, smiling, laughing, dancing, mingling and comingling. It all just looked like a blast.
Closing their set, they bring the energy back around with a bang, really getting into it with “Honey Jar”. Good gosh this sure had a shufflin’, groovin and swampy beat to it, another one of those songs that I’m pretty certain just made that floor bounce. I, however, was on more solid ground up in the balcony, and it sure did look fun down on the floor from up there! And, since I had seen the set list taped to the mic, I knew “Ophelia” was a comin’. Gosh, they really played this one big.
Coming back for a 2-song encore, they start with “Luckiest Man”, which quickly became a huge crowd sing-a-long. It must be cool when a crowd sings with you…. well, if it’s appropriate and all. Ending it all with another rowdy one that made the photographer in me glad I was on solid ground, yet also made the music fan in me want to be right in the mix of it all. Closing it up, they totally kill it on “Atlas”. Relentless with energy, starting out with Chris plucking the bass and Jano scratching that “shuitar”, giving it a soft and quick rhythm. “Hallelujah! I just woke up from a dream,” Oliver begins. There’s a smooth shuffle to this, a swingin’ feel, full of jazz and blues… “Don’t you try to hold my world up. Don’t you try to hold my world up. Don’t you try to hold my world up!” Yeah, it was super hard to sit still for this one.
American roots music, respectable tosses to their myriad of influences such as Robert Johnson, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Reed, BB King and Lightnin’ Hopkins; even a little Stan Getz, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, or the jazzy side of Van Morrison and Tom Waits, or surely The Band and even a little Dylan. Over the night, for those not too familiar with these guys yet, I’d say 60% of their music is acoustically mellow, a tad jazzy here and a tad bluesy there, with a little folk jam tossed in. Oliver’s story telling voice and gritty guitar, Chris’s deep connection to the bass and how to get each emotion out of it, and Jano adding not just the jazz to the rhythm but how he slips in the other sounds from his melodic or shuitar…. Unique and a bit poetic at times. Then, there’s the other 40% that makes ya want to dance! Funky, groovy, swampy, while keeping it in their comfortable zones in jazz and blues. And man, I know that floor was a moving up and down with that crowd. Oliver might pick up the electric to punch it out a bit more, and Chris might pluck and yank and bang on the bass, rather than gently skim it with a bow, while Jano will be back on the drums, killing each skin while blowing and drawing on the harmonica. And they generate so much energy with those funky ones, tossing it around on stage. You can almost see it getting eaten up, metabolized, and redistributed through the crowd. Well, as the song goes, they sure can make you feel it from your neck down to your feet!
Stumbled In, Wastin’ My Mind, Who the Devil, Blue and Green, Keep Me Around, The Muse, I Got Loaded, Shoefly Pie, Mary Anna, Losin’ Streak, You Got to Love Her With a Feeling, When I Was Young, Don’t Look Back, You Don’t Know How it Feels, Fixin’ a Hole, Honey Jar, Ophelia
Encore: Luckiest Man, Atlas