Live Concert Photography: The Wood Brothers with Nicki Bluhm at The Vic Theatre Chicago 4/13/18
As I mentioned in a previous post, last month I was in Chicago to attend a major conference related to my day job, and I showed up a few days before the conference to see some friends and associates, and to catch as much live music as I could in one of the country’s great music cities. And I had so much fun in the Windy City that I’m planning a return trip to do what I do best — eat all the food, drink all the beer, and see all the music. Interestingly enough, my second full day in Chicago included a return trip to The Vic Theatre to see The Wood Brothers and Nicki Bluhm.
Comprised of Boulder, CO-born siblings Chris Wood (upright bass, electric bass, vocals) and Oliver Wood (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, vocals), and multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix, the acclaimed folk/roots/Americana act The Wood Brothers can trace the origins of their musical careers back to when Chris and Oliver were children. Their father, a molecular biologist, frequently performed old folk and roots music songs at family gatherings and campfires and their mother, a poet, instilled a passion for storytelling and turn of phrase. As children and teens, they bonded over a mutual love of bluesmen like Jimmy Reed and Lightinn’ Hopkins; however, as they got older, their musical and professional paths would diverge.
Oliver moved to Atlanta, where he picked up gigs in playing guitar in a number of local cover bands before landing a spot in Tinsley Ellis‘ backing band. As the story goes, at Ellis’ behest Oliver Wood began to sing — and then he founded King Johnson, a hard-touring band that released six albums of blues-tinged R&B, funk and country over the next 12 years of his life. Meanwhile, Chris Wood studied jazz bass at the New England Conservatory of Music, moved to New York, where in the early 90s he co-founded the critically applauded Medeski Martin & Wood (MMW), an act that became one of the stalwarts of the downtown New York jazz and abstract music scenes. After pursuing separate musical careers for the better part of 15 years, Oliver Wood’s King Johnson and Chris Wood’s Martin Medeski & Wood played on the same bill at a show in North Carolina that famously featured Oliver sitting in with his brother’s band. “I realized we should be playing music together,” Chris Wood recalled.
Soon after, the duo recorded a batch of Oliver’s songs, channeling the shared musical heroes of their youth while centered around their own musical strengths — Oliver’s songwriting and Chris’ forward-thinking, adventurous musicianship. A demo landed The Wood Brothers a deal with Blue Note Records, who released their 2006 John Medeski-produced debut, Ways Not To Lose, a critically applauded effort that was Amazon.com‘s editors’ number 1 pick for folk and made NPR’s “Overlooked 11” list.
Building upon a buzz-worthy profile, the act released 2008’s Loaded and 2009’s covers EP, Up Above My Head before moving to Nashville‘s Southern Ground Artists, who released 2011’s Smoke Ring Halo, 2012’s Live Volume One: Sky High and Live Volume Two: Nail and Tooth, 2013’s Buddy Miller-produced The Muse, which was followed by all of the members of the band relocating to Nashville, marking the first time that Oliver and Chris have lived in the same city in several decades. 2015’s Paradise was the first album in which all three members of the band shared songwriting credits, as they were all in the same city to work on and refine material. Since then, the act has released another live album, 2017’s Live at the Barn. At the time that I caught The Wood Brothers, they were touring to support their sixth full-length album, the self-produced and recorded One Drop of Truth. And although I wasn’t familiar with them before the set, it was one of the most thoroughly impressive and entertaining sets I’ve seen in some time, as it featured material off their new album, a cover of Tom Petty‘s “You Wreck Me” that would have made Petty very proud, and a gorgeous, old-timey cover of “Angel Band” with opener Nicki Bluhm.
The Wood Brothers are about to embark on an extensive world tour that begins with two dates opening for The Devil Makes Three and includes a couple of dates with Bruce Hornsby, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, as well as a number of headlining gigs. Check out the following site for more information and tickets: https://www.thewoodbros.com/tour-dates/. In the meantime, check out photos from an incredibly entertaining show below.
Opening the night was Nicki Bluhm, a Lafayette, CA-born, Nashville, TN-based singer/songwriter, who’s best known for a six year stint as the frontwoman of The Gramblers, a band that featured her now ex-husband Tim Bluhm (with whom she also released two collaborative albums), and for her own recent high-profile collaborations with the likes of Phil Lesh, Infamous Stringdusters, Ryan Adams and others. Now, if you’ve been frequenting this site over the past few months, you may recall that her Matt Ross-Spang-produced To Rise You Gotta Fall is slated for a June 1, 2018 release, and the album, which marks Bluhm’s first solo album in some time was written and influenced over one of the most difficult transitions of her life in which she got divorced and followed it with a seemingly spur of the moment move to Nashville — and as result, the album’s material is reportedly a deeply personal chronicle of her state of mind before, during and after such a momentous, life-altering event. “These songs are quite personal,” Bluhm says in press notes “They are the conversations I never got to have, the words I never had the chance to say, and the catharsis I wouldn’t have survived without.”
While Bluhm’s relocation to Nashville was a bit of spur of the moment decision, it was influenced by a number of writing sessions that had her traveling to the city. As Bluhm says the city was so inspiring, “because of all the songwriting going on here. When I could come to Nashville on writing trips, it was just percolating . . . it was intoxicating.” Interestingly, around the same time Bluhm met with renowned producer, engineer and mixer Matt Ross-Spang, who was in town mixing other record, and as the story goes Ross-Spang and Bluhm hit it off immediately. “I really needed someone who was going to take the reins and have a vision for the album and he really did,” Bluhm says of meeting Ross-Spang. “My ex-husband had been my musical director, co-writer, and producer on all my records except one and I was looking for someone to step into that leadership roll, which Matt did very gracefully. I was looking for a clean slate; the only baggage I wanted to bring into the studio were the words to the songs I was singing. I wanted it to be a fresh experience; I didn’t want to even have history with anyone in the room that would pull me into old habits or ways of thinking. So we agreed we’d record in Memphis.”
Recorded at Sam Phillips Recording, the Rise You Gotta Fall sessions were primarily centered around the live tracking of a backing band of accomplished ringers and old pros that included Will Sexton (guitar), Ross-Spang (guitar), Ken Coomer (drums, percussion), Al Gamble (Hammond B3), Rick Steff (piano), Dave Smith (bass), Reba Russell (backing vocals), Susan Marshall (backing vocals), Sam Shoup (string arrangements) and a number of special guests. “We really just recorded live and we didn’t do that many takes of each song,” Bluhm says. “The final versions we ended up with were all one take. It was really refreshing to go analog. It minimized over thinking and second-guessing; forced us all to stay in the moment and play from the heart. . . Throughout the session there was a lot of listening and trusting. Matt really spends time curating his sessions and who he decides to bring in; he knows how to keep the vibe right. What you are hearing is, as Jerry Phillips would say, ‘not perfection but captured moments in time.’”
“I had lost my partner in so many ways,” Bluhm recalls in press notes, “my musical partner, my life partner, my creative partner, and all of a sudden I was left on my own, to start my own engine. It was really intimidating and scary,” she says “but I had support from my management, my agent, my friends and family, and ultimately I just had this guttural drive that I didn’t even know I had in me. I was on auto-pilot, ready to move forward and take the steps I had to take to keep moving forward. When the album finally comes out it’s going to be like setting a caged bird free.” Unsurprisingly, album title track, “To Rise You Gotta Fall” is an effortlessly self-assured track that’s indebted to Memphis and Muscle Shoals-era soul — and as a result the single reminded me quite a bit of Nicole Atkins‘ Goodnight Rhonda Lee and Natalie Prass, complete with a “you-are-there-in-that moment” immediacy and a fully-fleshed out narrator, who has the resiliency and determination that comes from living a complex, messy life, full of struggles, heartbreak, setbacks, small victories and crushing losses — while pointing out that life will always find a way to kick your ass and it will always push you towards wherever you need to be at that particular moment. Interestingly, Bluhm’s Vic Theatre set was a solo set in which she accompanied herself with guitar and it was a gorgeous, mesmerizing set that displayed both her sense of humor and her incredible vocals. From May 27, 2018 through July 29, 2018 Bluhm will be touring with a backing band to support her new album, and it includes a July 25, 2018 stop at the Bowery Ballroom. Check out the tour dates below.
May 27 – Colorado Springs, CO @ Meadowgrass Music Festival
May 28 – Aspen, CO @ Belly Up
May 31 – Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater
June 1 – Eagle, CO @ Bonfire Brewing Block Party
June 2 – Taos, NM @ Music on the Mothership
June 3 – Flagstaff, AZ @ Hullabaloo
June 5 – Solana Beach, CA @ Belly Up
June 7 – West Hollywood, CA @ The Troubadour
June 8 – San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
June 10 – Crystal Bay, NV @ Crystal Bay Club Casino
June 12 – Chico, CA @ Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
June 13 – Arcata, CA @ Humbrews
June 14 – Eugene, OR @ HiFi
June 15 – Portland, OR @ Dog Fir Lounge
June 16 – Seattle, WA @ Tractor Tavern
July 13 – Atlanta, GA @ Atlanta Botanical Gardens
July 14 – Charlotte, NC @ Knight Theater
July 19 – Scranton, PA @ Peach Music Festival
July 20 – Alexandria, VA @ Hamilton
July 22 – Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
July 25 – Floyd, VA @ FloydFest
July 25 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
July 26 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Foundry
July 29 – Nashville, TN @ 3rd & Lindsley