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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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
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.
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."