It was mere seconds after the Wood Brothers began the understated percussion intro to “Never and Always” that the ballroom at Higher Ground became a warm, comfortable place on March 3rd. And this isn’t a statement about the frigid weather or even a reflection of the nine year span of time during which the group has been playing the South Burlington, Vermont venue (or even the phases of the moon backdrop stage rear: it wasn’t illuminated at this point!).
It has much more to do with the low-key connection the Wood Brothers established with their audience(s) when they began as the duo of siblings Chris and Oliver, then expanded with the addition of brilliant but humble multi-instrumentalist and singer Jano Rix in 2011. To hear comments from members of the sold-out audience about the trio as their favorite band and compliments regarding the jazzy nature of Chris’ bass solo were more relevant to the loyalty the Wood Brothers compel than the talky likes of the denizens of the back bar area.
And the observation on that instrumental interval, justified as it was even if it was a bit outside the otherwise economical context of the group’s arrangements, reflects the eclectic attraction of the Wood Brothers music. It’s evolved dramatically over the last few years, up to and including the material of their latest album, the self-produced Paradise, which the band featured throughout the night. If newer material such as “Singing to Strangers” came at the expense of some early charmers such as “Chocolate on My Tongue,” the set list only made the encore of “Luckiest Man” even more resonant. Particularly as it followed what seemed to be the topper of the night, a lusty rendition of The Band’s “Ophelia,” where the brothers and Rix traded vocals in a sly tribute to that iconic group. There was no noticeable recognition of that tune as with “Postcards from Hell,” but the Wood Brothers’ music isn’t rabble-rousing enough to cause much fist-pumping—they didn’t get quite as intense as Oliver suggested they might after their turn at the old-school mike at center stage with opener Seth Walker.
Nevertheless, the Wood Brothers continue to satisfy in subtle ways because they’re poised enough to juggle their virtues. This night in Vermont, for instance, they featured more group harmonies than, as on “Raindrop,” and they continued to move ever so tantalizingly further toward the realm of electric blues-rock: every time Oliver began to clang on his electric guitar, the rhythm section upped the ante accordingly, digging into a groove that, as with so many of this ensemble’s charms, disappears almost as quickly as it appears.
Which is why it’s always delightful to see the Wood Brothers. No matter how good they are in a live setting—and Chris’ repeated twisting, turning dances, along with his brother’s good humored repartee with the audience, are indications of how much they enjoy themselves on stage—they always leave a musiclover just a little bit hungry for more. No doubt that’s why, as the elder Wood observed so sagely toward the end of the evening, they’ve moved from the cozy confines of the smaller Higher Ground lounge to the larger room they command, but never take for granted.