Thursday at Radio Radio, you can see a band jam, but it won't necessarily be a jam band.
The Southern roots sound of the Wood Brothers, led by guitarist-vocalist Oliver Wood, bears little resemblance to the jazzy grooves and improv of his bassist brother Chris's other trio, Medeski, Martin & Wood.
As heard on their forthcoming album, Smoke Ring Halo, the Wood Brothers are all about tight songs and an unvarnished, semi-acoustic but potent blend of rock, folk, country, blues, funk, soul, gospel and, not least of all, engaging wordplay.
The title track, with its horns and organ, evokes the classic air of the Band as Oliver sings:
Bet your heart was an
ice cube last night
Just chilling your whiskey blood
Putting your mind way out of sight, and that's OK
'Cause you got a smoke ring halo that just won't blow away
The brothers grew up in Colorado, with Oliver the elder by four years. Both loved music, and they collaborated a bit in younger days.
"There were a couple years there, in my late teens and his early teens," Oliver recalls, "when we were proficient enough to sit down and play together with a four-track recorder and write little ditties and tunes."
Upon coming of age, however, they set off in different directions. Oliver headed for Atlanta to soak up more of his preferred sounds, eventually fronting the blues-rock band King Johnson through the release of five albums. Chris went to New York and fell into the avant-garde jazz scene in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where he connected with John Medeski and Billy Martin and formed an instrumental trio that somehow became a favorite of Phish fans.
Eventually, however, the brothers reconnected to do a little recording, liked what they heard, and ended up releasing a live EP in 2005. Signing with Blue Note Records for two acclaimed albums, 2006's Ways Not to Lose and 2008's Loaded, they grew their familial side project into a full-time concern.
"We had these sort of parallel music paths for, gosh, like 15 years, before we even started playing together again, so it was kind of cool how it worked out," Oliver says. "It seems like we're coming from such different places, but if you look at our iPods, we both have Ray Charles and Charles Mingus and Miles Davis and Muddy Waters and just the roots of everything – African music, Latin music."
One way or another, many of those influences factor into Smoke Ring Halo, the Wood Brothers' third studio release and one of the first on roots-rocker Zac Brown's new Southern Ground Records label. Brown contributes some backing vocals to the album, which also benefits from organ work by Medeski and a horn section of top Atlanta session players.
Oliver handles most of the lead vocals, with a gritty tenor that falls somewhere between Van Morrison and the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson. Chris Wood – in addition to playing upright bass and harmonica – sings the occasional lead and lots of close harmony, in that way that only a sibling can.
Opening cut "Mary Anna" is a boisterous tale of love growing cold that packs a series of tempo and meter changes into 3Ã�'Æ'Ã¢â'¬Å¡Ã�'â šÃ'Â½ minutes. Following in short order are "Shoofly Pie," a slide-guitar rocker; "Pay Attention," a soaring gospel-style number; and "Stumbled In," a sly ode to debauchery with the junkyard orchestra sound of Tom Waits.
Despite the guest contributions, the band is a trio at heart, and even that represents an evolution from previous albums and tours. Several months before starting work on the new release, the Wood Brothers made the strategic decision to add a drummer to their standard live lineup.
"Up until the last year or so, we'd really been just a duo, so even though our earlier albums had some drums on them, we wrote and toured as just the two of us, and the drummers were basically session drummers," Oliver explains. "We're actually a three-piece band on the road now, and that's the way we recorded the album, as we would play it live with three people. So I feel like this album is more cohesive, in that it sounds like a band."
The drummer in question was Tyler Greenwell, who has since been hired away by Derek Trucks. Drummer Jano Rix is keeping time on the current tour. Chris sticks with standup bass and harp, and Oliver divides his time between electric and acoustic guitar.
In another first for the band, Smoke Ring Halo was produced, engineered and mixed by Jim Scott, known for his studio work with Wilco, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash and a long list of rock, pop, metal and country acts since the mid-'80s.
"He was a real inspiration, a real old-school guy as far as technology goes," Oliver says. "He's been through generations of music production and just knows everything about it, and how to blend the old things with the new things. He really understood what we were doing, and he understood what it was supposed to sound like."
The two Wood Brothers share songwriting credits on the album, and indeed their writing process grows more collaborative as time goes on, Oliver says. He also notes that the mood of the new disc is lighter their previous work, as exemplified by the party atmosphere of the opening songs. The brothers' first album, he recalls, was recorded in the wake of a divorce, and the second release followed the death of their mother.
"Those were really different times in my life and our lives," he says. "The writing was a lot more serious and solemn. There's some of that on this new record, but for me personally, I've been in a really good place the last couple years, so it's just a different feeling."