The Bay Area was treated to a host of incredible acts this past weekend, and with such a diverse menu of options, it was hard to make a wrong decision. The LIVE crew opted for The Wood Brothers at The Fillmore on Friday night, and it proved to be the perfect choice.
Consisting of Chris Wood (of Medeski, Martin & Wood fame) on upright bass and harmonica, his older brother Oliver Wood on guitars, and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix, this trio of road warriors have been making a name for themselves for the better part of a decade now, so it was no surprise then to roll up to the venue to find that the show was very much sold out. I took in the show as a fan but I also jotted down some notes about the band that people may not know about them; here are eight things about the band you need to know if you were at the show or not.
1. They will tug on your heartstrings while moving your feet.
The first thing to catch one’s eye upon entering The Fillmore was that the stage was decorated like the front of a barn with wood slats, a few dusty old blues records, a lamp, and strings of lights. This down-homey scenery fostered an immediate intimacy to the proceedings, and from the first notes of the “Stumbled In” opener, the trio had the crowd fully immersed in this vibe. With tender and heartfelt tunes about drinking, fighting, family, growing old, love found and love lost, mostly sung in beautiful three part harmonies, The Wood Brothers’ sound is a potent amalgam of folk, blues, gospel, jazz and soul that is hard to pin down. The variety of influences and instrumentation meant that no two songs sounded alike — a fact that kept the crowd fully engaged without any lulls whatsoever. After a few slower country numbers in the two through four slots, the band really kicked it into high gear with “Shoofly Pie”, one of the gems off their 2011 album Smoke Ring Halo, and the first song of the night to feature Oliver on slide.
2. This type of music is not a departure for Chris Wood.
Perhaps better known in most circles for his work as one-third of the legendary avant-groove jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, a lot of people might have been surprised when they first heard Chris was joining an Americana roots band with his brother. However, Chris grew up in a folksie household: his dad was a musician in the same vein as Dylan and his mom was a published poet, so more than anything, this band is a return to his familial roots. That is not to say he hasn’t brought what he’s learned with his jazz cohorts to the table: he took many a bass solo that would’ve felt right at home in the middle of an MMW show.
3. They’re recording their next album at Dan Auerbach’s studio.
The trio is currently touring in support of their fourth studio album, The Muse, but never one to rest on their laurels, they’re also road-testing new material for their next record. They already started recording it at The Black Keys’ guitarist’s Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville last fall, before Chris went out on the road with MSMW, and are hoping to finish it at the end of this current leg before they head back out on the road next month. If the songs which they previewed are any indication, it’s sure to keep their legion of fans pleased.
4. Their drummer also plays an instrument called a “shuitar”.
Halfway through the gig, Jano stepped out from behind his drum kit and added a different type of percussion via his homemade shuitar — named thusly because it is literally a s***ty acoustic guitar rigged with tuna cans and various other jangly contraptions that allow it to double as a drum. While it might sound like a novelty or a gimmick, it absolutely suited each of the songs it was used for perfectly.
5. They’re not afraid to share the spotlight.
Towards the end of the set, The Wood Brothers welcomed the opening act, Mandolin Orange, up on stage for a glorious singalong of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels”. Mandolin Orange is a North Carolina duo with a bright future ahead of them, and features Andrew Marlin on mandolin and Emily Frantz on fiddle. They were both given the opportunity to take a quick solo between verses, all the while Oliver urging them to “take your time” and “let ‘er rip” with a giant smile. For a few minutes, The Fillmore felt like a front porch pickin’ party; the only things missing were the bottles of moonshine.
6. They’re one of the better cover bands around.
With such a varied and diverse sound, it’s no surprise that The Wood Brothers’ musical influences span a large portion of the entire musical map. After the Tom Petty cover, the trio played a shrewdly rearranged and deconstructed call-and-response version of The Beatles’ “Fixin A Hole”, and closed the set out two songs later with a rousing and faithful version of The Band’s “Ophelia”. While The Beatles, Tom Petty, and The Band might not sound like a super diverse group of influences, may I also present to you their cover of Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.”; these guys take their musical history lessons seriously.
7. Chris has been hiding some pretty solid dance moves from us.
In MMW, Chris is pretty much chained to his bass as he needs to quickly respond to the flood of ideas pouring forth from his bandmates. You could sometimes see him getting down to the groove ever so slightly when he played the electric, but that cannot even come close to preparing you for his footwork in The Wood Brothers. Chris treated his upright bass like a hootenanny dance partner on more than a few numbers, swivelling his hips back and forth with a couple high steps for good measure. In fact, when it came time to do the band introductions, Oliver remarked, “on bass, harmonica, vocals, and interpretive dances, my little brother Chris Wood”. While he never put his instrument down long enough this evening to seriously explore the Fillmore’s spacious stage, here’s a nifty Chris collage from their set which closed out the 2013 edition of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
8. They’re happy right where they are.
Halfway through the show, Oliver addressed the crowd by proclaiming, “for a lot of bands playing The Fillmore this might just be a stepping stone on the way to playing baseball stadiums. Not us! We’re happy to stay right here and keep playing in this amazing room and look at all the beautiful posters”. He went on to say that it was more than ok if they were peaking as a band, and Chris corrected him without missing a beat — in the knowing way that only a brother can: “We’ve plateaued”. What a plateau it is.