When I was 12, I spent the summer traveling up and down the east coast with my family performing a street theatre piece based on the poetry of Carl Sandburg called Rootabega Stories. It was a grueling task, baking in the withering heat of late July while your father gave you notes about your prat falls. Still, I wouldn’t trade those long hours for anything you could give me. In a life spent in pursuit of creative fulfillment, those early days on the road stand out as a golden period. It was easier to be free with family, to imagine fully, to make brazen and fearless fools of each other and ourselves. Since then we have all continued to create separately, but rarely together, at least for my part. I would relish the opportunity to work alongside them again, though we are spread through the world now, our own people in our own contexts.
Perhaps this is why I am so captivated by the music of The Wood Brothers. They have also spent years creatively apart, Chris Wood in New York with jazz-funk trio Medeski, Martin & Wood and Oliver Wood with popular Atlanta based jam band King Johnson, but a few years ago, they began performing together as The Wood Brothers. Chris plays the upright bass that made him famous, and Oliver plays and sings with irresistibly scratchy soul, and the resulting music is simple but subtle. They play songs that make you weep, songs that make you stomp and holler, and songs that make you do both at the same time. In general, their subject matter tends towards larger themes of hope and failure, redemption and the flawed, but their songs always feel personal. I asked Oliver Wood if these were his demons getting exorcised. “I generally feel like its personal,” he says, “but I feel like that happens whether your conscious of it or not. In other words, I might come up with a story, or I might write what I think is a song about someone else, and ultimately it’s about me, it’s about an emotion that I have.”
Whatever the formula, it seems to be working because I can’t get enough of it. Speaking of which, The Wood Brothers can’t seem to get enough of you either, Birmingham. “I love Birmingham,” exclaims Oliver, “I’ve played Birmingham forever. I used to play there in the early 90s with Tinsley Ellis, a blues guy out of Atlanta, and we’d go to Birmingham, it was always a favorite stop. And I love the Workplay Theatre. That’s a great listening room, and that’s what we like in The Wood Brothers, we like when people are actually sitting there and captives to a degree.”
It’s true, when they roll through Workplay this Saturday it will be The Wood Brothers third stop here in three years. Don’t think you get off the hook if you’ve been to those shows and think you can skip this one, because they recently recorded a new album in Los Angeles with Wilco and Lucinda Williams producer Jim Scott, and for the first time they are bringing a drummer to play the new material. After an album of covers, it’s a relief to know the brothers are getting back to original songwriting. “The covers thing was fine,” says Oliver. “It was fun, and it was kind of a cool, but we’ve been waiting to do this original album and we’ve been working on these songs real hard for the last year or so. We’re putting it out on a new label called Southern Ground Records, which is owned by Zac Brown. He’s a musician himself and understands the plight of the artist much more than some guy in a suit does, so we were able to make an album exactly the way we wanted to make it, and still do it on what looks like it’s going to be a very cool label. I think it’s coming out in the late summer or early fall.”
So far, these fellas have yet to deliver a bad album, so anticipation is high in my world, and I have faith that they will give me another round of great songs to absorb. Perhaps I will send them to my family as a reminder of the joyful things we once made together in the summer heat all those years ago.
The Wood Brothers and opening act Joe Mc- Guinness will be at WorkPlay on Saturday, June 19, at 9 p.m. For tickets, visit www.workplay.com.
Sam George is Birmingham Weekly’s newest staff writer. Send your comments to email@example.com.