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The Wood Brothers at Higher Ground

Doug Collette By

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The Wood Brothers
Higher Ground Ballroom
South Burlington, Vermont
February 6, 2017

In the decade plus they've played together, The Wood Brothers have made a habit of coming to Vermont virtually every year and their near-sell-out appearance in the ballroom of Higher Ground was almost exactly twelve months since their last show at the venue (but just six months since appearing at the 'Grand Point North Festival' and almost the same interval before they return in the summer on the 'Wheels of Soul' tour with the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Hot Tuna).

Bassist/vocalist/harpist Chris (of Medeski Martin and Wood), guitarist/vocalist Oliver and multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix confidently (if a bit quietly) met the challenge of maintaining consistency while keeping their music fresh. Their April 2016 show at the club suffered somewhat from an imbalance of older material versus newer, but this single approximately ninety-minute set proved superior for its very selection of songs.

And that became apparent right from the abbreviated, but no less striking opening of "Stop That Train." This brief take on The Wailers' tune accentuated the drama of the band in dark silhouette on stage just before they began to play and the Woods' continued concentration on acoustic arrangements, seasoned by Rix' keyboards at certain junctures, was the crucial element in the success of the performance. The understated "Smoke Ring Halo," for instance, was no less ingratiating than " I Got Loaded," with its effortless audience singalong, while "The Muse" was as touching in a personal sense as "American Heartache" was resonant in the current political climate.

Oliver Wood made no overt mention of the topical undercurrent of the latter tune, preferring instead to (over?) casually mention the availability of the Wood Brothers' Live At The Barn (Honey Jar Records, 2017) two or three times. No doubt this tour in support of the release spoke volumes, though, and the elder Wood was more intent on charming the crowd which he did to its fullest extent leading to what sibling Chris referred to as the 'O Wood Bros Where Art Thou?' segment of the performance.

This turned out to be the only time the band became anywhere near as precious as opening act, The T Sisters, and, not coincidentally, the female trio joined in on fulsome harmony vocals around the ancient microphone before the interval concluded. The inordinately high quotient of cuteness quickly dissipated with Oliver's compliment to the attendees for their civility in listening attentively (ignoring the obligatory yahoo near the back bar early on): his further comparison to other audiences sounded as wry as his brother's sardonic reference to the group's 'Americana' categorization. The Wood Brothers shifted gears to a more upbeat, crowd-pleasing tenor as the show ensued, including a solo spotlight for Rix as well as some dance moves from Chris proving how hale and hearty he is following some health issues last fall.

His brother's use of a slide on an electric guitar as the younger Wood wielded a Hofner electric bass remained as tasteful as any other number the Woods played this snowy evening, which only lent "Honey Jar" more of a celebratory air as they wove in and out of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful." And the dedication of "Postcards From Hell" to the late drummer Levon Helm (at whose Woodstock studio the aforementioned live album was recorded) was as roundly acclaimed as the Wood Brothers apropos closer, "Ophelia."

Lusty recognition all around the floor for this cull from The Band's last great studio work, Northern Lights Southern Cross (Capitol, 1975) no doubt figured as mightily into the jam-up at the merch table prior to the prospective post-show meet and greet. The reciprocal loyalty the Wood Brothers have nurtured in the Green Mountains generated a warmth everyone in attendance no doubt carried with them as they departed, whether they left immediately or not.

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