THE WOOD BROTHERS
Live, Volume 2: Nail & Tooth
(Southern Ground Artists)
The Wood Brothers’ show at Yhe Egg on Friday (February 22) is sold out, and has been for some time. No big surprise, to my mind: One of the best musical nights I ever spent was when guitarist Oliver Wood and bassist Chris Wood (plus a special surprise guest named John Medeski) brought their rocking alt-country act to the late Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble in 2010. I’d never seen the duo before that night, and I swore I’d see them again after they slayed me in the aisles. Great vocals, phenomenal musicianship, undeniable authenticity, energy that flows over you like high tide on Big Wednesday… Take it from me; the Wood Brothers are the total package, and in concert, it just gets better.
“Okay, J,” you say, fighting off your exasperation. “But if I can’t get into this show, why are you torturing me by writing about how great these guys are?!” Well, because I want to clue you in to the music that’s been living in my car’s sound system ever since the disc came in the mail: Live, Volume 2: Nail & Tooth, the second of two live dates the Wood Brothers released in 2012 through Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Artists label. Some of the music on Tooth (and its predecessor Sky High) comes from the Brothers’ 2011 release Smoke Ring Halo, which they previewed when I saw them at the Ramble, but the rest is music we’ve heard in places like Revolution Hall and Club Helsinki, and others have heard at big-ticket shows like Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival.
I’ve heard the gospel traditional “Up Above My Head” done both straight up and rocked out, but the opening track of Nail has this friendly loping quality that says, “Come on in! We’re gonna have a great time tonight!” Chris’ simple bass figure is as fat as anything he’s provided for MMW, and it’s matched by Jano Rix’s unadorned backbeat. Oliver cranks out country blues on his acoustic guitar when he’s not belting out the vocals to a howling room of supporters. His partners’ harmony vocals land near the bluegrass side of the country occasion, and when they slide up on the last verse, it’ll make you howl, too, and maybe make you raise your hand like a penitent at a revival show who’s trying to get the Lord’s attention.
Mind you, it’s not all a revival. “When I Was Young” has elements we’ve heard from Medeski Martin & Wood, and Rix’s busting melodica work seals that comparison. “Spirit” has a spiritual message that’s filtered through gallons of 100-proof swamp rock, and Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out of My Life Woman” has hints of a NOLA Second Line even as the Brothers tack on some truly filthy rock guitar. Pushed by Chris’ haunting harmonica counter, “Where My Baby Might Be” is a dark, dark blues that has Oliver playing electric with ample help from lap-steel guitarist Clay Cook. Cook is the Wood Brothers’ secret weapon, and he straps a supercharger onto the glorious rave-up “Shoo Fly Pie” and the killer closer “Atlas.” It doesn’t hurt that Cook adds one more voice to the Brothers’ intoxicating vocal mix.
While comparisons can certainly be made to contemporary “sacred steel” outfits like the Lee Boys and Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Nail takes me back to the early days of the Allman Brothers Band: Those Brothers were the first group to really take the marriage of country and rock to its logical conclusion. (The Byrds leaned too far towards the sequined-shirt Hank Williams-era sound Gram Parsons rode right to his premature ending.) The Wood Brothers have created a muscular matrix that mixes the down-home comfort of gospel with the unfettered freedom of the jam band world. It connects on many levels with many generations, and has an unquenchable fire at its big-as-all-outdoors heart.
With or without Cook backing him up, Oliver plays pretty damn good guitar himself when he’s not bewitching the crowd with his sharp, unadorned vocals, and the commitment Chris brings to the Wood Brothers makes me miss MMW just a little bit less. In an age of overproduced schlock pop that’s Focus Grouped until you want to cry, Nail & Tooth shows that it doesn’t take much to be a real force of nature: Just love, chops, and a whole lot of commitment.
Priced at $24, there may or not be a handful of tickets available for the Wood Brothers’ concert at The Egg in Albany at 8pm on Friday (February 22). Jamie Kent is scheduled to open the show.
The Wood Brothers will also be rolling into Club Helsinki in Hudson on Saturday, March 2. Rayland Baxter opens the show at 9pm. Tickets are $25 in advance; $28 at the door.