The oldest sibling of The Wood Brothers, Oliver, was in an unusually voluble mood throughout the band’s appearance at Higher Ground March 1, 2014, but toward the home stretch of their single set, he mentioned the Woods’ eight or nine year history coming to Higher Ground, he was indirectly referring to the fact they had sold out the larger of the two rooms at the South Burlington, Vermont venue that night when in the past they’d only played the smaller Showcase Lounge.
That’s a marked and gratifying sign of progress for a group that relies solely on its musicianship to attract it audience, but the guitarist/songwriter might also have been thinking how The Wood Brothers have evolved over that span of time. Originally a duo of Oliver and his younger brother bassist/vocalist/harpist Chris (he of Medeski Martin and Wood) playing a slightly eccentric charming style of country blues with a hint of gospel, The Wood Brothers now include multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Jano Rix, who on this Mardi Gras weekend, allowed the trio to fairly accurately replicate the layered arrangements present on their most recent recording The Muse.
The multi-instrumentalist’s intonations on the melodica as the concert began with “Neon Tombstone,” it called to mind the horns appearing on last October’s release, laudable in itself but less noteworthy than the fact The Wood Brothers continue to evolve as live performers, this late winter evening, most notably as an improvisational unit. Never exactly hamstrung by their arrangements, but making the most of their economy–which the trio continues to do as they did this Saturday night on “Sing About It”–the three piece continues to grow more fluid as they bond.
Little wonder then that on that very first number, Oliver took an extended electric guitar solo and offered one only slightly shorter on “Wastin’ My Mind” immediately thereafter. With his sibling and Rix locked in as a firm, assertive rhythm section beside him, such open-ended blues-rock receives increasingly greater emphasis within their sound, so there’s some danger The Woods might lose their winning eccentricity. As they concentrated on their original material, in so doing maintaining their diversity of style, the channeling of their roots becomes personal expression in tunes like “Luckiest Man.”
As usual, The Wood Brothers 90-minute plus set passed quickly before their largely devoted audience. That being said, Oliver did make mention of the distinction he draws between music-lovers and music-likers, the latter group of which needed the most hushing during the sit-in with opener Chris Kasper and Kylie Ryan on Leadbelly’s “The Pines.” And he had a point because, with much of the Woods repertoire quietly understated, bar conversations and cellphone usage becomes all the more distracting (and did at various points within the crowded venue).
It’s a clear-cut loss for anyone not paying close attention this Saturday night, all too easy as it would be to miss a nuances such as the similarity in the two voices of Wood Brothers as they take turns singing lead. Or the fact that, with the exception of the aforementioned guest spot and the subtle boogie of “Make Me Down A Pallet on Your Floor,” the single set was comprised of their own material, ranging from the jubilantly acknowledged “Postcards From Hell”—tendered as a sly invitation to sing-along –to the title track from their latest album: with its three vivid verses set to delectable melody, Oliver thus began to make a place for himself in the grand tradition of Southern short-story writers, a provincial lineage extended even further as he now sports a beard that makes him look like a cross between Gregg Allman and Chris Robinson.
Given the quotient of the sold-out crowd that did raptly follow the music, a multi-tune encore was perhaps no surprise this Saturday night but The Wood Brothers did not just go through the motions. When the trio dug in and chugged their way towards the end with “One More Day,” they were completing a circle, finishing the performance with “Atlas” much as it began, authoritatively deploying themselves as a well-oiled machine, yet with nary a hint of the mechanical about them. Whether it’s a formal holiday or not, it’s always been a genuinely celebratory experience to see the Wood Brothers live, and this latest Vermont show confirmed it should remain that way.
Wastin’ My Mind
Sing About It
When I Was Young
Fall Too Fast
Who The Devil
The Pines (w Chris Kasper & Kiley Ryan)
PYT (Pretty Young Thing)
One More Day