Our excitement has been growing for months as Rich Ruoff – the director of The Lancaster Roots and Blues Festival – has slowly revealed the lineup for the February 26-28 music festival in downtown Lancaster. Roots and Blues – now in its third year – features more than 70 local and nationally touring bands. With so many bands to check out in three days, you obviously won’t be able to catch them all, but over the next couple weeks, we’ll be highlighting a few bands you should make sure to see.
The Wood brothers, Chris and Oliver, have shared a love of music since childhood, when they first heard their father sing folk songs and play records from his impressive collection spanning folk, country, bluegrass and blues. Their mother – a published poet – got them interested in the mechanics of creative writing and the power of words. This foundation set them on their path to become songwriters.
After spending decades apart pursuing their separate careers in music – Chris with the improvisational groove-jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood and Oliver with his New Orleans-influenced blues and folk-rock outfit, King Johnson – the brothers finally shared the stage when Oliver sat in during a Medeski, Martin and Wood gig in North Carolina. The connection was instant and they decided to explore it.
They enlisted Jano Rix – a talented multi-instrumentalist and singer – and formed The Wood Brothers. They’ve released nine albums including their debut studio album, 2006’s Ways Not to Lose. Their most recent album – Paradise – came out in October of 2015 and was recorded in Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studios in Nashville, where the Wood Brothers recently relocated. Paradise features the most collaborative songwriting effort by the band as well as their first stab at producing. With soulful folk-tinged ballads and funky basslines, Paradise might be The Wood Brothers’ best record yet.
I spoke with Chris Wood last month as he was wrapping up rehearsals for The Wood Brothers upcoming tour (which includes a stop at the Lancaster Roots & Blues Festival) and preparing for a trip to Jamaica to play a jam band festival with Medeski, Martin and Wood.
Mike Andrelczyk: You’re about to play a festival in Jamaica with Medeski, Martin and Wood and then turn right around and head out to the West Coast to do The Wood Brothers tour. Is there a big transition switching between the two bands?
Chris Wood: When I’m up on stage with either band it’s exactly the same. There are technical differences because I’ve got to play and sing with The Wood Brothers, but there’s music and sound happening and I’m reacting to it. That’s exactly the same between the two bands. What’s different is everything that leads up to that moment. Two different bands. Two different personalities in the bands.
The Wood Brothers deals with songwriting and lyrics and Medeski, Martin and Wood is improvisatory groove-jazz. What’s interesting is even though the bands sound a lot different, 80 to 90 percent of the influences are the same. The context in which the bands developed is really what makes them different.
The Wood Brothers, being a songwriting band is obviously a big difference, Medeski, Martin and Wood, with all those same influences, developed in this downtown new music scene in New York City, which just cultivated a certain attitude about artistic expression and stretching boundaries in every way. Every artist is trying to stretch boundaries, but you know, The Wood Brothers deal with issues that can be talked about with words. And that’s a whole other art form.
MA: Paradise gets listed under Americana but there’s definitely some boundary pushing going on there.
CW: My personal role in The Wood Brothers is to bring some of the elements I learned in Medeski, Martin and Wood to singer-songwriter music. Maybe inspired by collaborations such as Wilco with Nils [Cline] playing guitar or like Tedeschi Trucks, you know, Derek [Trucks] and Susan [Tedeschi] combining all the things that Derek was into, but putting it into the structured songwriting context. I feel like I’m kind of involved in the same journey.
MA: Tracks like “Heartbreak Lullaby” have an Americana vibe while songs like “Without Desire” and “Raindrop” have a really funky feel to them.
CW: “Heartbreak Lullaby” sounds like a really simple fingerpicking song but it’s actually very African inspired. It’s not in 4, it’s in this kind of 3 or 6/8 feel. It’s a cross-fertilization. Medeski, Martin and Wood had all these African field recordings – especially West African – and I had all these really neat West African guitar records that I turned my brother onto. He got inspired and learned all that stuff. “Heartbreak Lullaby” is a result of that. That’s what I love about this band. Oliver is such a great songwriter and lyricist and I feel like I can feed him these little musical influences.
MA: Growing up you and your brother were inspired by listening to your father’s record collection or listening to your father play folk music. Then you guys went your separate ways for a while and now you can share influences you’ve gathered along the way. It’s like coming full circle.
CW: I still pinch myself sometimes that we’re actually doing this. I have a band with my brother (laughs). It’s really cool. I never would’ve guessed it back in the ‘90s. That was the last thing in my mind.
MA: Why do you think you guys didn’t gravitate toward something like this earlier?
CW: I think it was just because early on I was attracted to jazz and I pursued that path by going to the New England Conservatory of Music where I studied with the great bass player Dave Holland who played with Miles Davis. So I was on this path and I met John [Medeski] and Billy [Martin] and we formed in New York City. In hindsight you understand how your path unfolds, but in the moment I had no idea what I was doing. I was just following my heart and Medeski, Martin and Wood were just involved in this weird music career. I never thought about anything else and I think my brother was on a similar journey down in Atlanta with his band – just trying to make a career as a musician. We were so caught up in that when we were younger. It finally occurred to us that we had the same job and we could play together. It was very organic.
MA: Does this feel like a family band?
CW: Oh yeah. But so did Medeski, Martin and Wood. We were like dysfunctional brothers. Now I’m with my brother and it’s actually pretty functional (laughs). It’s definitely a family band. That’s the beauty of it.
MA: What’s the songwriting process like?
CW: It depends from song to song. Some Oliver started – and then we’d get in there and flesh ‘em out together –and some I started. It’s been really fun learning to work together and have trust in each other. We always had plenty of respect for each other but, you know, when you come up with a creative idea sometimes you hold it like it’s one of your children. It’s been more and more collaborative. I’m used to that. Medeski, Martin and Wood was a total democracy, which is a total pain in the ass sometimes. It’s just easier if there’s a leader. Decisions get made quicker. But despite all the hard work, I’ve always found that the best results came out of situations where everybody was putting in their two cents. There’s something that happens that way that doesn’t happen when just one person is at the helm. All of us are in there with our ideas. Some of the discussions can get pretty intense sometimes, but that’s when exciting things happen. Combinations of ideas happen and then you get something better than what you had in the first place, so all that hard work can be exhausting, but, in the end, it’s worth it.
MA: You guys have really great harmony. Did that come naturally? You weren’t doing a lot of singing for a long time.
CW: I had to work really hard at it. I’m still working hard at it. Ironically, [Oliver] never sang as a kid. I was the one singing all the time. I was the music nerd in school. I was in choirs. I was in a band where I sang, and then I joined this instrumental band (laughs) and didn’t sing for a couple decades. When The Wood Brothers started I had a lot of catching up to do. I’m always working on it. We had the benefit of having that brother blend – even though I wasn’t the best singer, something about it worked. And Jano is a great singer, too. So we can really get the three-part harmonies going, which is fun. We’re developing that all the time. There’s still a lot to explore.
The Wood Brothers perform at the Lancaster Convention Center during the Lancaster Roots & Blues Festival on February 28 from 7-8:15 p.m. Visit lancasterrootsandblues.com or call 1-800-838-3006 for tickets.