The Wood Brothers Higher Ground Showcase Lounge
South Burlington, VT
April 30th 2006
The Wood Brothers' CD, Ways Not to Lose, is the definition of understatment, so it may be overstatement to call it one of the best albums so far this year. Nevertheless, when you see these siblings live, you can understand their unassuming charm and find little to fault in their brew of blues, folk and jazz.
Born of a lifelong devotion to music, brothers Chris and Oliver Wood play with a natural empathy, for which no rigorous rehearsal schedule can substitute. Originals like "Tried and Tempted" are neither innovative nor intricate, but the brothers Wood play them masterfullyespecially the bassist, who, as the unsung hero of Medeski, Martin, & Wood, has as much technical ability as imagination).
It's not easy to play simply, and that's ultimately the Wood Brothers' greatest gift. This simplicity dovetails nicely with the sly tone of songs such as "Chocolate on My Tongue" and "Luckiest Man." These songs are warm-hearted observations on the blessings of life. They might seem at odds with the acoustic blues flavor of Oliver's National steel-string guitar, until you notice the melancholy below the surface (which becomes clear when he uses the bottleneck in addition to chording). The guitarist's live singing voice is much less reminiscent of Dr. John than on the recording. His brother's muscular approach to the double bass, though never quite showboating, makes musical sense when he does step up to solo.
The Wood Brothers may initially sound like they're just playing together in their hotel room, but they are conscious of their audience. Their rendition of The Beatles' "Fixing a Hole" not only turned the tune into a low-key reverie of pure whimsy, but transformed the bridge with a touch of show-biz braggadocio. The small but attentive audience at Higher Ground appreciated this nod to the fans.
Covering Taj Mahal's "Chevrolet after Oliver had connected his electric guitar wasn't so astute a choice. Not that it doesn't fit the Woods' nascent oeuvre, but their rendition on this occasion had neither their customary wit nor the depth of feeling the song can hold (hear The Derek Trucks Band testify with it). Their cover of Allen Toussaint's "Get Out of My Life Woman," a jaunty tribute to NOLA, suits them better. Even more fitting was the warm devotion in "Angel Band," where the Wood Brothers' self-effacing lack of pretension served them well. In its own way, this benediction revealed the serious side of their dual personality, while their encore unveiled a socially conscious mindset, tempered with a broad sense of humor.
With Chris singing in a hoarse tone to accompany his harmonica playing, and its lyrics alluding to a cop from early Bob Dylan talking blues,The Wood Brothers emphatically ended their set with a good-natured gesture, while simultaneously tendering a serious topical undercurrent that was hard to miss. Markedly different than the bulk of their repertoire (the likes of which could accommodate a much longer set), the performance was nevertheless fully in keeping with the duo's developing style, as affecting from the stage as it is from the CD player.