The second installment of The Wood Brothers’ live set, ‘Live, Volume 2: Nail and Tooth’, will be released this week on Southern Ground Records. KSUT will feature it on Friday at noon, as a little preview of what to expect from their performance later that day (7 PM) at the Four Corners Folk Festival.
Not familiar with them? Two brothers decide to form a band, adapting the blues, folk and other roots‐music sounds they loved as kids into their own evocative sound and twining their voices in the sort of high‐lonesome harmony blend for which sibling singers are often renowned. While that’s not a terribly unusual story, the Wood Brothers took a twisty path to their ultimate collaboration. Indeed, they pursued separate projects for some 15 years before joining forces.
You wouldn’t necessarily gather this fact from listening to Smoke Ring Halo (Southern Ground), the duo’s third full‐length album – their musical chemistry has never felt more profound. Oliver Wood (guitar, vocals) and Chris Wood (bass, vocals, harmonica) refine their rich, spacious sound on songs like the rousing opener “Mary Anna,” the back‐porch‐funky “Shoofly Pie,” the waltz‐time plaint “Pay Attention,” the elegiac title track, the gospel‐inflected “Made It Up the Mountain” and more.
With supple assistance from drummer Tyler Greenwell and a fleet of gifted guest players – not to mention Grammy‐nominated producer‐engineer‐mixer Jim Scott (Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Lucinda Williams) – the brothers simmer, swing and soar, shifting moods and time signatures with aplomb. As ever, Oliver’s lived‐in, expressive voice and urgent fretwork bounce off Chris’ propulsive stand‐up bass lines, in‐the‐pocket harmonies and ghostly harmonica phrases. But this time Chris contributed some lead vocals, displaying a startlingly pure tone on the dreamy “The Shore” and the slide‐spiced “Rainbow.”
They both imbibed the heady tones and stories of American roots music – notably folk, blues, bluegrass and country – at the feet of their father, a molecular biologist with a passion for performing. “Even before we discovered his record collection, we listened to him around the campfire or at family gatherings,” Oliver recalls of assorted hootenannies at their Boulder, Colorado, home and other locales.
“He’d entertain anybody.” Adds Chris, “Having that experience of live music at home was pretty important. It definitely affected the way my brother and I view music.” Their mother, a poet, meanwhile, taught them a deep appreciation for storytelling and turn of phrase.
Though initially “too shy to sing,” Oliver became obsessed with the guitar, especially as voiced by bluesmen like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed. Chris, who cites the “roundness, warmth and mystery” of those same blues recordings as a primary influence, studied clarinet and piano but gravitated toward jazz sounds; by the time he took up the bass he was fully enraptured. The boys discovered classic rock artists like Hendrix and Led Zeppelin on their own along the way; Oliver followed those monster guitar riffs back to the electric blues of “the Kings” (B.B., Albert and Freddie), Albert Collins and other midcentury masters. He too spent some time spellbound by the complex filigrees of bebop – but, as he says, “I came back full circle” to roots music.
Their paths diverged after those teenage explorations. Oliver briefly attended UC Santa Cruz before dropping out to follow some fellow musicians to Atlanta, where he tackled Motown and other R&B covers on guitar in local clubs. “I was learning how to be a working musician,” he remembers. “I didn’t yet have aspirations to be an artist.” Though that band didn’t last long, a regular Tuesday‐night gig at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack enabled him to hone his chops and learn from older players. He eventually secured a spot in the band of veteran bluesman Tinsley Ellis, touring widely and experiencing the elder musician’s “workhorse” schedule. It was his mentor Ellis who ultimately encouraged him to approach the microphone. “He gave me a Freddie King song, ‘See See Baby,’ to sing in the set,” Oliver relates. “He encouraged me to write and sing. That’s where I got the fire to do my own thing.”
He formed King Johnson with his buddy Chris Long, layering R&B, funk, soul and country elements over their beloved blues influences. He toured constantly with that “labor of love” band during the 12 years of its existence; KJ released six albums and eventually became a six‐piece outfit (including a horn section).
Chris, meanwhile, went off to the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC), developing his virtuosic skills on bass, studying with jazz luminaries like Geri Allen and Dave Holland and gigging regularly as a sideman. It was during a fateful session in Western Massachusetts that he met keyboard wizard John Medeski; with drummer Billy Martin, they would go on to form the hugely influential, genre‐busting instrumental trio Medeski Martin & Wood in the early ’90s. MMW released a string of discs combining jazz, funk, blues, experimental noise and myriad other subgenres and styles into their own distinctive amalgam, and mesmerized audiences worldwide with their seemingly telekinetic improvisation. Wood’s colossal grooves on both electric and acoustic axes – not to mention his imaginative use of paper behind the strings and other sound‐altering techniques – made him the bass player’s bass player.
Eventually, King Johnson opened for MMW in Winston‐Salem, N.C., and Oliver sat in with his brother’s band. “It was a slightly creepy experience, like watching myself” Chris notes. “He had a lot of the same impulses I did. Part of it was influences and part of it was blood.” Agrees Oliver, “It opened our eyes that we could communicate on a musical level.”
In 2004, the brothers seized the opportunity presented by a family reunion and recorded some material together on Chris’ mobile gear. The sound of their blended styles was instantly compelling. “It was pretty amazing to get together with Chris,” Oliver muses. “We played together as teenagers, then we went in separate directions for 15 years. We’d developed our own thing and seemingly different styles and roads, but we were both blown away by how much we had in common. The roots are still there.”
Oliver took the music they’d recorded, added lyrics and finished it as a song. Encouraged by their initial foray, the Woods decided to take the next step, with Chris learning a batch of Oliver’s songs and the pair tracking a demo. Though they’d done it for their own amusement, MMW’s manager was sufficiently impressed to pass the music on to Blue Note Records. No sooner had they begun to think of themselves as a band than the Wood Brothers had a record deal. (Prior to releasing their album debut for the label, the pair dropped an EP, Live at Tonic; it was culled from their very first gig together, at the storied New York club.)
Oliver had spent years polishing his singing and songwriting but felt his guitar chops needed work. Chris, meanwhile, was a monster player who’d spent 15 years making instrumental music and had to reacclimate himself to vocals and pop song structure. These different emphases ended up serving them well. “I had these songs and could sing and play ‘em well,” reflects Oliver, “and Chris’ strength – at the time – was to take my songs and make ‘em sound completely cool and unique. Instead of a typical band situation, you had this incredible upright bass.”
2006 saw the release of their first album, Ways Not to Lose, which was named top pick in folk by Amazon.com’s editors that year. “Modern folk and blues rarely sounds as inventive and colorful,” declared Amazon reviewer Ted Drozdowski, who deemed the disc “delightful” and declared the brothers “in absolute synch creatively.”
Ways was produced by MMW’s John Medeski, who had been stunned by Oliver’s compositions. “He’s an unbelievable songwriter – his material is deep,” the keyboardist marvels. “I can’t tell you how many of Oliver’s songs I thought were old traditional standards. They just sound classic.” Medeski went on to produce the Brothers’ 2008 follow‐up, Loaded (heralded as one NPR’s “Overlooked 11”); he also contributes some tasty organ playing to Smoke Ring Halo. “I just love his musical sensibility,” Oliver says of his brother’s longtime bandmate.
Working with Jim Scott on Halo, the Woods were able to explore new sounds. “Because he’s also an engineer, he’s very technically knowledgeable; he’s a fantastic sonic guy,” Oliver volunteers. “That’s why this record sounds so different from our others.” Also, Chris points out, “We recorded on two‐inch analog tape this time, so it has that fat, natural sound we love.”
In 2010, the Woods and drummer Greenwell hit the road with roots‐rock phenom Zac Brown. “It was about the best opening‐band situation I can imagine,” Chris says of the tour, which sometimes put the Wood Brothers before crowds of 20,000 – many times larger than the usual audience for their headlining gigs. “Zac was really great; he’d come out and play with us during our set, and invite us out to join in during his.” Oliver notes that he and his brother “learned a lot by watching Zac and his band.”
Brown also wooed the Woods over to his own label, Southern Ground; he served as executive producer on Smoke Ring Halo.
And so the two brothers continued pursuing the musical adventure they’d begun in childhood. For although their paths diverged for many years, and they forged very different careers in disparate places, the Wood Brothers are never far from the musical currents that formed their musical impulses in the first place. It may be, in Chris’ formation, part influences and part blood. But it’s all magic.