Contributing Writer : Jason Turgeon
Contributing Photographer (Still and Video) : Joseph McGonegal
The Wood Brothers
Paradise Rock Club
Tuesday, Dec. 8 2009
Festival junkies are a jaded crew. We spend all summer bouncing around from stage to stage, half-listening to half-sets of music by half-known artists from vantage points halfway back in the crowd, carefully chosen to allow us to scoot out in time to hit the next half-set before it’s too late. In some ways, we’re musical collectors, dilettantes flitting around trying to do and see everything without ever committing to anything. But there’s a point to our manic movement, our lack of ability to listen to more than 15 minutes of one band, our refusal to patronize most of these acts when they come through town on tour.
In a world with thousands of new acts trying to break through, a world where the major labels have given up on artist development and marketing, it’s up to us to discover the new songs that will hit heavy rotation on our iPods. Our endless festival flightiness is a search for the soundtracks for our memories, happy remembrances of long sunlit afternoons spent lounging in the grass soaking up the ONE band that made it all worth it, the one band that actually had what it takes to stop us in our tracks and stay put for an entire set of music, or even better the one band that we might actually pay to see again when the winter tour comes by.
The Wood Brothers are that one band. They get short shrift at festivals, stuck on the smallest stages at ACL in 2009 and Langerado in 2008, hung out to dry with 45-minute sets tucked into the earlier part of the day in the earlier days of the fest when the party mafia are still out there trying to find their scores or resting up for the late night Chromeo set with visions of go-go dancers in heads. There are never more than a few hundred folks at their festival appearances. But the party crew’s loss is the music-lover’s gain, because no self-respecting music fan can leave a Wood Brothers set before it’s over, and those lucky enough to stumble across their stage are sucked in for the duration, tempting half-sets of music elsewhere be damned. Their subtle blend of acoustic roots music is too mellow, the picking and sliding and harmonizing too unbelievably perfect, the afternoon sun slanting through Oliver’s fine blond hair too damn photogenic for anyone to tear themself away.
Article Continues After Photographs
Fortunately, these two gentlemen thrive on the small stage and the intimate crowds, just Chris with his stand-up bass and Oliver with his two guitars. It’s easy to picture the two of them playing on a front porch somewhere outside Savannah or Charleston, slowly sipping Maker’s on the rocks while the sun lazily wanders off to bed. No, no one leaves a Wood Brothers set early, because each set is so damn special. Everyone involved from the two boys on stage to their lighting guy casually videotaping the set from his perch to the fans scattered around the grass with blissed-out grins and half-closed eyes knows that this is as good as it gets. This isn’t music made to sell records or get the drummer laid, this is music made for the sheer joy of the music itself, and this is the music festival-goers come looking for.
So it should come as no surprise that even on a bitterly cold Tuesday night in December, the Wood Brothers are able to pack Boston’s Paradise Rock Club on one of their all-too-infrequent tour dates. Early-arriving fans are lucky enough to nab one of the folding chairs that club management has set up in anticipation of a well-behaved crowd, and the those chairs deny the rest of us our chance to push to the front of the stage. Instead, we hang politely crowded back against the bar or up on the balcony, a bit too far removed from the band for an intimate set like this.
After seeing such short sets on festival stages, it’s a treat to be able to spend nearly two hours with Chris and Oliver, and everyone in the room is paying rapt attention. Rare conversations are kept to the lowest possible volume, the line at the bar moves quickly, and there’s nary a cell phone in sight. The boys have the simplest of set-ups, although on this night they’re occasionally joined by a snare-drummer introduced only as “Jed from New York.” Shouted requests from the audience are heard and acted on, and the crowd is in a jovial mood.
The brothers’ languid sound disguises an incredibly tight and focused set that starts out with a cover of Steve Earle’s “Mystery Train, Part II” from their recent album of covers Up Above My Head and quickly moves into a selection of crowd favorites from Ways Not to Lose and Loaded. The band’s now put out three nearly perfect albums, and every song of the set is a crowd-pleaser. There’s no jam-band free-form noodling here; these polished songs are well-practiced and rarely exceed 4 minutes. The main set packs 18 tracks into just 90 minutes, with time for a bit of banter with the fans included.
As they pass the center point of the show, perfectly spinning their way through their easy-to-love lullaby “Walk Away,” girlfriends around the room lean back into the embrace of their boyfriends and the room holds its collective breath for a few minutes lest someone should interrupt Oliver’s idyllic crooning. Not once do they lose the tempo, miss a note, or fall out of harmony. Oliver plays guitar the way you daydreamed you’d play when you bought that old Sunbird back in college, all perfect slide and elegant picking, and Chris is so at ease on the bass and harmonica that you can’t imagine him ever doing anything else but this.
After a break that’s as brief as their songs, the brothers and Jed join the stage again for a two-song encore of “Luckiest Man” and the rollicking footstomper “Atlas.” No one moves an inch towards the door until the last note is over and as we spill out into the hallway on the way out there’s a line ten-deep at the merch table, where Oliver and Chris are signing autographs and collecting their earnings one ten-dollar CD at a time. It may be winter outside, but in our heads we’re already looking forward to next summer and the chance to catch up with the Wood Brothers again on some sunny afternoon and stop the festival shuffle for a full set, happy to know that we’ve found the one band that makes it all worthwhile.