O brother, there you are
Growing up in 1970s Boulder, music divided brothers Oliver and Chris Wood nearly as much as it brought them together. Yes, as teens they jammed together and captured their sounds on a four-track recorder. But music also served to amplify the differences between guitarist Oliver, older by four years than Chris.”He was more outgoing about music than I was,” said 40-year-old Oliver, from his home in Atlanta. “I was sitting in my room, playing, and he was getting gigs at age 16, 18 – jazz gigs, wedding bands, in school.” While Chris chased down a life in music, “I had fantasies of it,” noted Oliver.The disparity in personalities was reflected in where the two brothers landed after leaving Boulder. Chris – “more intense, an intellectual, a Yankee type,” according to his older brother – left for New York, where he immersed himself in the downtown avant-garde. Following a memorable 1991 jam in a Brooklyn loft, he formed, with keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Billy Martin, the cutting-edge groove trio Medeski Martin & Wood. Oliver, after dropping out of college in Northern California, was persuaded to relocate to Atlanta, where he found a niche in the roots-rock scene and acquainted himself with the slower pace of the South. “I’m more a Southerner type,” he said, in an easy drawl that sounds Dixie-born. “I’ve grown to love it. It fits my personality.”Of late, Oliver and Chris have found common musical ground. In March, the two released “Ways Not to Lose,” the debut CD credited to the Wood Brothers and produced by John Medeski. The two have been touring on and off since early 2005, and were included on the bill – alongside Tracy Chapman, Cowboy Junkies, Marc Cohen and many others – of a tribute to Joni Mitchell at Carnegie Hall in February, where they played Mitchell’s “Black Crow.” The group, which tours as a duo, is scheduled to appear at some of this summer’s biggest festivals, including Bonnaroo in Tennessee, Milwaukee’s Summerfest and Minnesota’s 10,000 Lakes Festival.The Wood Brothers make their valley debut today at the third annual Chili Pepper & Brew Fest in Snowmass Village. Headlining today’s program is Chris Woods’ other band, Medeski Martin & Wood.For Oliver, who has had just middling success in his career, the Wood Brothers has boosted his profile, his commercial fortunes, and the unity of the Wood family. “It’s been totally great,” he said. “It’s nice to get some recognition after all this time, for all these songs I think are worth hearing. And doing it with my brother, that’s the ultimate. It’s brought the whole family together. Our folks come see us when we’re in Colorado.”
Oliver and Chris were both introduced to music from more or less the same source, their father. Bill Wood, while attending college in the Northeast, was a part of the early ’60s folk happening.”We both picked it up because of our father, a great guitarist and singer,” said Oliver. “And a real folkie. He had a radio show in college, played with Joan Baez, played in the Raunch Hands, who had a deal with Epic Records. He was a serious about music as about school, and it just happened that he became a microbiologist. He was a big influence around the house.”Both brothers started with piano lessons before exploring their own interests. Oliver says he “played bass for a minute” before switching to guitar and handing the electric bass down to his brother. It found an appreciated place in Chris Wood’s hands.”When my parents saw how serious he was, they got him a stand-up bass, and he disappeared into his room for a few years,” said Oliver. “He also learned about jazz.”Oliver says, “it took a few years to realize music was something I wanted to get serious about.” In Atlanta, he formed King Johnson, a blues-oriented band that Wood estimates has been around “forever.” The group has released five CDs, appeared alongside the Funky Meters, Gov’t Mule and Jimmie Vaughan – and almost gave Oliver a reason not to pursue another line of work. (He supplements his income by teaching guitar.) King Johnson used to tour across the country, but has given that up as band members have had families; the group now sticks to the Southeast.Chris took a different path, with different results. The New York trio Medeski Martin & Wood has had notable success, especially for a group that plays challenging, all-instrumental music. Martin, in an interview with The Aspen Times last year, traced that popularity to the jam-band Phish, which played MMW tapes during set breaks. Jam fans, finding a danceable groove and recognizable sense of improvisation, joined the jazz lovers and avant-gardists in becoming MMW enthusiasts. The band became a top draw on the jam-oriened festival circuit.Oliver Wood watched with appreciation, but mostly from afar. “We ran in different circles, and the only times we’d get together is when MMW came through Atlanta, or family holidays,” he said. “Even though we pursued the same profession, we grew apart.”
But they were not estranged. Five years ago, at a gig in Winston-Salem, N.C., King Johnson opened for MMW, and Oliver ended up sitting in for MMW’s entire second set. After that, Oliver would often join his brother’s band onstage at Atlanta appearances. Even though the brothers seemed to come from different musical places – King Johnson was song-oriented; MMW was all about the groove – they found it easy to bridge any gaps.”It felt so good, so natural,” said Oliver. “It was just stand there and play, like we used to.””It’s very different,” Oliver said of the varying styles. “But Chris and I have a lot of the same taste, the same jazz sensibility of listening and improvising. The cool thing about MMW is they groove so hard, and I love that – that’s what I aspire to do.”And they’d go easy on me, in choice of tunes.”Those onstage jams led, two summers ago, to a living-room session, while the Wood family was vacationing in Vermont. “It was just acoustically, which we’d never done,” said Oliver. “And it felt great. We found it real easy to come up with ideas.” The first completed song, “Tried and Tempted,” was encouraging enough that they continued to get together and write.Those ideas manifested not in the avant-jazz of MMW, nor the greasy roots rock of King Johnson, but in a collection of songs that lean toward Delta folk blues. On “Ways Not to Lose,” the Wood Brothers are joined on several tracks by drummer Kenny Wollesson; the rest is just the brothers, with Chris’ strong sense of groove on the bass substituting for a drummer.The album leans much closer to Oliver’s methods of making music. The fact that “Ways Not to Lose” contains songs, not instrumental jams, puts Oliver’s stamp on it. Oliver is the primary songwriter: Several songs are credited to him alone; two he co-wrote with Chris, and a few with members of King Johnson. On the album, one can hear strains of Little Feat and the Band – both groups that Oliver tags as influences on King Johnson.”It’ been cool to bring Chris into that world,” said Oliver. “He hasn’t sung a lick in Medeski Martin & Wood. It’s kind of cool to see him sing and write a batch of songs. And I’ve learned a lot about Chris’ world and his passions.”
Oliver says his brother’s contribution was equal to his own. “Musically, we’re meeting right in the middle,” he offered. “Our live show, Chris’ bass-playing is featured all the time. It’s just two of us making all the noise, so Chris is no less challenged. And he’s challenged by doing a lot of singing.”In fact, the Wood Brothers marks new territory for both of its members. It represents the culmination of a true family reunion, as well as new artistic horizons.”It’s kind of new for both of us, because we’re both used to playing with bands, with drummers and people to support us,” said Oliver. “It’s a challenge to create all the sound, and imply a band.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.comChili Pepper & Brew FestFanny Hill, Snowmass
FridayLittle Hercules at 4 p.m.; The Wood Brothers at 5 p.m.; Medeski Martin & Wood at 7 p.m. SaturdaySean Costello at 3 p.m.; Trevor Hall at 5 p.m.; Jonny Lang at 7 p.m. SundayWaste Deep from 1-5:30 p.m.Tickets: $15 (concerts only) or $25 (including chili and beer tastings) per day. Free on Sunday. For more information visit http://www.snowmasschiliandbrew.com.
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