The Wood Brothers are giving Massachusetts audiences plenty of opportunities to catch them live.
By Scott McLennan
Oliver Wood really does feel like a lucky man. Though that was not the original message of “Luckiest Man,” a song he wrote which later helped establish The Wood Brothers, the professional pairing of Oliver and Chris Wood.
Wood says that when he first wrote “Luckiest Man,” back in the ‘90s, it was delivered with a bit of sneer and cynicism. And the tune kept that shape when The Wood Brothers recorded the song on their debut album released in 2006.
“My life was completely different back then,” Wood said during a recent interview with The Arts Fuse. At that time the song’s chorus, in which people told him how lucky he was while not knowing about the devils he was wrestling with in the song’s other verses (sparse blues statements), sparked more sarcasm than joy.
But to watch the band perform the song these days, with a funky ragtime bounce woven into the rhythm, is to hear a recasting of the tune. “Now it is much more literal. I do feel very lucky,” Wood said.
Before forming The Wood Brothers in 2005, Oliver had been working the blues and roots circuit with his band King Johnson and as a guitarist in Tinsley Ellis’s blues band. Virtuoso bassist Chris made his name as a member of the progressive jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood.
Today, The Wood Brothers is no longer mistaken as a side project for its two namesake siblings. The band, which also includes multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix, is caught up in a nonstop cycle of touring and recording. The concert album Live in the Barn is the group’s most recent record; a studio album of new material is being readied for the new year.
The kind of broad support garnered by The Wood Brothers mirrors the breadth of its eclectic sound, which is usually propelled by infectious melodies. Chris Wood’s MMW partner, keyboard player John Medeski, produced The Wood Brothers’ early recordings; country music star Zac Brown likewise aided in the release of live albums by the brothers and has joined them on stage; and most recently the Tedeschi Trucks Band, one of the powerhouses in the blues-rock scene, boosted the profile of The Wood Brothers by making the group part of the annual Wheels of Soul Tour, which played amphitheaters across the country.
And it was an honor, Oliver Wood said, to be one of the first artists to take the stage in a concert honoring music pioneer Col. Bruce Hampton on his 70th birthday. The May 1 event featured dozens of artists who had been influenced by Hampton’s passion for music and cosmic philosophy. Tragically, Hampton collapsed on stage toward the end of the concert, when he was leading his acolytes through a rave up of “Turn on Your Lovelight,”’ and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
“Bruce connected us. And if you were part of that, it was like being in the know. He made us all understand music differently. He taught us to not take ourselves too seriously but the music is something to take very seriously,” Wood said.
That ethos of loyalty to the music comes through in any given performance by The Wood Brothers. From Rix’s use of a guitar rigged up with percussion elements to brother Chris’s wild dance moves, there’s no shortage of high-spirited entertainment even as the trio whips up some fierce musical interplay.
The Wood Brothers are giving us us plenty of opportunities to catch them live. They return to the area this month performing at two notable festivals. On Sept. 16, the band is at the Fresh Grass happening on the grounds at MassMoca in North Adams. That festival kicks off Sept. 15 and runs to the 17th. Brandi Carlile, Railroad Earth, Del McCoury and David Grisman are also featured artists at Fresh Grass.
The Wood Brothers then join Martin Sexton, Marcus King Band, and several others on Sept. 17 at the Festival at the Farm, which is taking place at Prowse Farm in Canton, MA. That multi-band affair opens Sept. 16 with Lettuce, Lee Fields and others. Info on the festival is available here.
Look for the Wood Brothers to be back in Boston proper sometime in February.
With Oliver and Chris devoting more time to The Wood Brothers, the band’s sound and songs have evolved. Just like “Luckiest Man” started out one way and turned into something very different, so too have other of the band’s numbers, some consciously, some subconsciously, Oliver Wood said.
“A lot of times when we are in a creative mode, we don’t know what we want a song to sound like. You know what you don’t want it to sound like, and then you work different combinations to get something you like,” he explained.
“Postcards From Hell” is another song that has mutated into new directions since Wood first wrote it. Originally, it was about Atlanta musician Donnie McCormick, an influence on Wood who was by and large unknown outside the world of Southern rock aficionados. The song’s signature line is “I got a soul that I won’t sell” — over time it has grown from a gentle prayer to a bold anthem.
“Now, over the years, the song has come to be about all of my mentors. I played it for Bruce (Hampton) at his birthday concert. I played it for Levon (Helm) when we made the live record in his barn,” Wood commented.
Wood said that just as much as the band keeps pushing to evolve, it also wants to make sure it leaves familiar markers along the way.
“No matter what you see, as varied as setlists can be from night to night, there are certain songs we know we will get to,” Wood said. “It’s always about trying to achieve a balance. You want to give people something that they are attached to, but you also want to challenge them — and yourself.”
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.