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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Wood Brothers, Plus One

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Oliver and Chris Wood want to come clean: The Wood Brothers name is something of a misnomer these days. While the brothers spent their first five years as a duo, the addition of drummer Tyler Greenwell (Derek Trucks, Col. Bruce Hampton) has made a dramatic difference. Greenwell joined them on tour last year and helped create the songs for their forthcoming third full-length, Smoke Ring Halo. His addition has thoroughly rejiggered the sound, helping to create a gritty, dirty rock bite as the Woods forge an identity outside their separate bands.

"You spend the first half of your musical career trying to sound like other people so you can learn how to play your instrument. Then maybe you pull that off to a certain degree and you kind of get over it," says Chris Wood from his upstate New York home. "Your goals shift. You want to sound like yourself and figure out what that is. So what's really cool about the timing of this whole thing is that Oliver and I have started a band after we've started the second half of our career where we're more interested in figuring out who we are rather than copying other people."

Oliver and Chris first played together almost 30 years ago, while Chris was still in junior high (Oliver is four and a half years older). After graduating high school Oliver moved to Atlanta, where he started blues rockers King Johnson in the mid-'90s. Upon graduation, Chris headed to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory of Music. There he met a young organist, John Medeski, and later the two of them moved to New York. There they encountered drummer Billy Martin and formed the jazzy jam band Medeski, Martin & Wood.

Flash-forward to 2003 when King Johnson opened for Medeski, Martin & Wood, with Oliver sitting in on guitar for a few tracks. It'd been more than 20 years since the brothers had played together, and the experience left Chris a little dumbstruck. "It was just uncanny, his instincts," Wood recalls. "It's hard to describe, but the way he played the music, the attack, the phrasing—something about it was so familiar that it was a little creepy. It was like watching myself play. Like, 'Hey, I would've done that.' Really weird and beautiful. So we realized then, 'OK, we've got to play music together.'"

While enjoyable, their two studio LPs (2006's Ways Not to Lose and 2008's Loaded) feel tentative next to Smoke Ring Halo. They're spare, exploring more of a jazz-folk vibe with a blues undercurrent. That sound had family roots—their father was a Boston folkie in the '50s who had played with the likes of Joan Baez before becoming a molecular biologist—but wasn't as gripping as the grimy blues-rawk squall of "Shoofly Pie" or the shuffling funk crackle of "When I Was Young." While the addition of Greenwell has clearly been transformative, the vocals have also undergone a makeover to better use the brothers' complementary timbres and even make use of some three-part harmonies with Greenwell.

"When we started six years ago, I was just getting back into singing," Chris says. "I've developed a lot since. My harmony singing's become better and stronger, and therefore is mixed in such a way that it's more in your face. You can hear it more, whereas in the other couple records it might have been a more distant sound, something in the background that blends in."

The future of the Wood Brothers is as a trio, and Chris is looking forward to Smoke Ring Halo's (still unannounced) release as the first album on Zac Brown's new imprint, Southern Ground Records. He can't help but get excited about the future.

"It's great, like we started a family business," he says. "Looking at each other, it reminds us who we are. I have an objective perspective of him, which sort of reflects on me since we have a lot of similarities. It made it easy to make music right away, but the fact that we have a bunch of other strengths we developed over the intervening years apart is fueling a lot of interesting development, and I feel we have a long ways to go before that runs out."

The Wood Brothers play Shank Hall Saturday, April 2, at 8 p.m.

Chris Parker is a freelance music writer and aspiring novelist. His work has appeared in weeklies and magazines including the Village Voice, Creative Loafing, Philadelphia Weekly, Alternative Press and The Big Takeover.

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