The acclaimed folk/roots/Americana act The Wood Brothers, 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, can trace some of the of origins of the act and their musical careers 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 wildly diverge.
When they were young men, Oliver Wood relocated 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. At Ellis’ behest Oliver Wood began to sing — and shortly after that, 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, and upon graduation relocated to New York where in the early 90s he co-founded the critically applauded Medeski Martin & Wood (MMW), an act that quickly became one of the stalwarts of the 90s downtown New York jazz and experimental music scenes.
After pursuing separate and rather disparate musical careers for close to two decades, Oliver’s King Johnson and Chris’ Martin Medeski and Wood played on the same bill at a North Carolina show. During Martin Medeski and Wood’s set, Oliver sat in with his brother’s band. And as the story goes, the brothers insanely realized that they needed to be playing music together.
Shortly after that set, the brothers recorded a batch of Oliver’s songs, which channeled the shared musical heroes of their youth while showcasing their own individual strengths — Oliver’s songwriting and Chris’ forward-thinking, adventurous musicianship. An early batch of demos 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 on 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. Shortly after the release of The Muse, the members of the trio relocated to Nashville, marking the first time that Chris and Oliver Wood 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. Now, if you’ve been frequenting this site over the past year or so, you’d recall that I caught the acclaimed trio at The Vic Theatre in Chicago, during their tour to support their sixth, full-length album, the self-produced and recorded One Drop of Truth. And although at the time, I wasn’t familiar with them before the set, they proved their reputation for being one of the best touring bands in contemporary music.
Earlier this year, the acclaimed Nashville-based trio released another live album, Live at the Fillmore, which was recorded over the course of a two night stand at San Francisco’s historic music venue. The album further cements their long-held reputation for live shows centered around performances that defy easy categorization — their delivery lives at the intersection of arena rock energy and small theater intimacy, all while blurring the lines between folk, rock, blues, soul, funk and Americana. In between a busy touring schedule, the trio found the time to write and record the highly-anticipated follow-up to One Drop of Truth, Kingdom in My Mind.
Throughout the band’s previously recored material, the trio would write a batch of songs and then deliberately set out to record them. However, Kingdom In My Mind found the band beginning the process of writing and recording without initially realizing it. When they started out, they all thought they were simply breaking in and test driving their new Nashville recording studio/rehearsal space by tracking a series of extended instrumental jam sessions.
“If we had known we were making a record, we probably would have been too self-conscious to play what we played,” Chris Wood reflects on the writing and recording process of their forthcoming album. “At the time, we just thought we were jamming to break in our new studio, so we felt free to explore all these different ways of playing together without worrying about form or structure. It was liberating.”
“We weren’t performing songs,” Oliver adds. “We were just improvising and letting the music dictate everything. Somebody would start playing, and then we’d all jump into the groove with them and see where it went. Normally when recording, you’re thinking about your parts and your performances, but with these sessions, we were just reacting to each other and having fun in the moment.”
After listening to their jams, the members of the band realized that they captured something undeniably alive and uninhibited. Much like a sculptor, Chris Wood took those sprawling improvised recordings and began to carefully chisel out verses, choruses, bridges and solos until distinctive songs began to take shape. From there, the band divvied up the material that spoke to them most and began writing lyrics both separately and together.
Thematically the album is an extensive meditation and reckoning with circumstance, mortality and human nature. The material, which is centered around vivid character studies and unflinching self-examination attempts to find strength and solace in accepting what lies beyond our control — and ponders how we find contentment in a confusing, chaotic and frightening world. “We all have these little kingdoms inside of our minds,” the band’s Chris Wood says in press notes. “And without really planning it out, the songs on this album all ended up exploring that idea in some way or another. They look at the ways we deal with our dreams and our regrets and our fears and our loves. They look at the stories we tell ourselves and the ways we balance the darkness and the light.”
But while the lyrics dig into deep philosophical territory, the arrangements draw from a broad sonic and stylistic spectrum. Interestingly, “Alabaster,” the album’s first single and opening track is a slow-burning and decidedly Dr. John/New Orleans-like jazz ballad centered around an empathetic portrait of a woman, who’s broken free from her old life and relocated far way for a much-needed fresh start. Featuring an incredibly novelistic attention to detail, the song manages to feel improvised and unhurried yet carefully crafted — but perhaps more important, it’s a reminder of the exceptional and versatile musicianship of a trio that can essentially play anything at anytime with soul.
“At the same time we were making this album, we were looking for some sort of philanthropic organization we could support with our music,” Oliver Wood explains, “and in a bit of synchronicity, we came across this great group called Thistle Farms, which was based just down the street from our studio. Their goal is to help women who have been victims of prostitution or addiction to get off the street and into safe housing where they can participate in therapy and job training. The work they were doing was so inspiring and it felt like such a fit with the kind of album we were writing that we teamed up with them to donate a portion of ticket sales from all our shows. It’s our way of using what we’ve got to do whatever good we can in the world.”