The Nashville-based Wood Brothers fashioned an alternatively raucous and introspective set last month (1/29) at the McDonald Theatre (Eugene, OR), displaying both their folksy, acoustic-blues roots and some expansive new growth.
The Wood Brothers have developed a reputation for purveying a high-proof blend of primarily acoustic, American folk sounds. Their best songs radiate the same emotional intensity as the best traditional blues. In Eugene, the trio (guitar, stand-up bass and drums) produced an enticing, spiritually-charged brand of bar-room boogie; but they also added more classic rock, funk and soul to the vintage mix, giving strong indications of their widening reach.
The group opened with a slinky cover of the blues standard “Trouble in Mind.” Oliver Wood’s vocal intimated a road-worn weariness in quiet harmony with the song’s haunting lyric—“I’m gonna lay my head/on some lonesome railroad line/and let the two-nineteen train/ease my trouble in mind.”
The immediacy of this threadbare emotion riveted the audience into a contemplative stillness. Bassist Chris Wood coaxed an otherworldly whine with his bow, and a shuffling concession—the struggle is real—set the show in thoughtful motion.
The Wood Brothers appear to be gaining momentum. The crowd in Eugene was noticeably larger than at the previous year’s show, and while still mostly gray or graying, there were an increased number of vocal youths. The Woods’ latest recording, Paradise (2015), also represents a noticeable progression. They’ve been experimenting with horns and keyboards since Smoke, Ring, Halo (2011), but the effect on Paradise is even more pronounced and comprehensive. Studio brass, woodwinds, electric bass, and keys add a texture to the band’s stripped-down core that intensifies their already evocative energy.
Touring without additional musicians, the trio relied heavily on multi-instrumentalist/drummer Jano Rix to furnish the necessary accents for the group’s new songs. On “River of Sin,” Rix’s electric piano provided a quaint, honky-tonk cantina nuance as Oliver’s swaying vocal swept the room in a shared conceit—“I’ll paddle up this river of sin/I’ll send up a broken amen/I’ll swallow some pride but I won’t be denied/’cause I’ll try again and again.”
The soulfully brooding “Never and Always” suggested wavering faith and intoned a somber admission—“Sometimes it feels like/I’m never and always, alone.”
An endearing “Heartbreak Lullaby” trembled lightly between yearning and regret. Rix offered soft hints of bayou, mimicking an accordion with his keys (or maybe a melodica). The sweet, nostalgic air tempted warm remembrance, yet shivered with vulnerability—“You’re bound to wake up crying.”
Whether it was the thoughtful tone of the material, the rigors of the tour or simply the Wood Brothers’ conscious pacing, the first half of the show felt slightly subdued compared to the later portion. Perhaps “introspective” is more accurate given the overall quality of their music, but in any case, the Brothers steadily amplified their energy and eventually exhibited real ass-kicking intent.
Chris Wood loosened-up with some crazed dance steps before they launched into a churning “Snake Eyes.” Instead of resignation there was urgency in the Woods’ performance—“Come on everybody there’s a train coming/Won’t be at the station too long.” A rowdy hell-raiser, “Snake Eyes” put the kettle to the fire.
The Wood Brothers threw down a series of blistering shuffles and demonstrated their lip-smacking knack for finding a sick groove. At times their musicianship went unnoticed in support of their sensational songs, but as the show unfolded they began to let their instruments unwind.
A compendium of classic rock, soul, jazz and blues started to cross in the Wood Brothers’ cauldron. Rix enhanced the mood on “Pay Attention” with Billy Preston-flavored keys. “Who the Devil” swaggered as Chris and Oliver traded concise, sweltering licks.
The band attempted to reign-in and refocus the room with their old-fashioned, “time-machine” microphone. They circled the “Radio Days” relic intending to quietly harmonize, but the cork was already out of the bottle and the crowd was beyond shushing. The group’s choice of song, the striding fan-favorite “One More Day,” didn’t do much to pacify the jubilant howlers. The Woods simply rocked it less like a baby and more like a house.
The Brothers graciously invited their opening act, Liz Vice, a young gospel/soul singer from Portland, to take a turn on the “time machine” and lead them through the old spiritual, “I’ll Fly Away.” Vice has the voice to do just that and she delivered a high-flying take. The show’s energy continued to rise in spite of the group’s effort for intimacy. Vice belted-out the familiar hymn with such strength the lyric continued to resonate long after the set was complete—“When I die, hallelujah by and by/I’ll fly away.”
Chris then announced, “We’re gonna get a little weird,” and he grabbed his electric bass.
This “weird” part was easily the apex of the Wood Brothers’ altogether entertaining performance. The electricity equipped the band for even higher climbs, and they put the added thrust to good use.
“Wasting My Mind” sounded huge, like a magnificent dinosaur from the Lost World of album-rock. Possibly the greatest Leon Russell song not penned by Russell, “Wasting My Mind” filled the theater with a massive, soulful presence.
The thumping new “Raindrop” shook remaining seat-clingers to their feet, before the Wood Brothers sent the room sideways with a choice cover of Charles Wright’s “Express Yourself” (famously sampled by N.W.A). The sensual strut of “Honey Jar” brought the show to climax and completed the Woods’seamless transformation from acoustic revivalists into full-blown rock-and-roll band.
The Wood Brothers’ unmistakable calling-card remains their expressive songwriting. Live performance only intensifies the visceral effect. Shifting masterfully from meditation to revelation to cathartic release, they moved the McDonald Theater. They shook souls loose and sent them soaring. The narrative of so many of their songs concerns a quest for something more—musically, the Wood Brothers have found it.