Like a stripped down version of the Band, The Wood Brothers pay homage to that band's drummer's spirit at Levon's Helm's Woodstock studio.
Oliver Wood has always been on the bluesier side of the musical spectrum, playing in Atlanta bluesman Tinsley' Ellis' band for a couple of years in the early '80s before founding the great but under-appreciated King Johnson with the sound they dubbed adultcontemporaryrootsrockbluesjazzfunk. It was wiggly swamp fonk slithering from the Mississippi mud down to second line struttin' in the streets of New Orleans.
Brother Chris spent the better part of two decades in his jazz/groove band, Medeski, Martin & Wood, before reuniting with his brother when Oliver opened for and then sat in an MM&W gig in Winston Salem, N.C. The brothers played together at a family reunion, then after Oliver sat in on Chris' record date, the two crafted a song together,then decided to do a demo of Chris's songs with both playing. That was the genesis of the Wood Bros, now fleshed out with Jano Rix on vocals, percussion, keyboards and a funky slapstick he calls a shuitar. Rix says that instrument “started out as a really crappy guitar and was right to be made into a percussion instrument.” It adds a funky rattle and thump to proceedings, getting a kick drum sound out of a panel at the base of the sound hole, a snare drum sound by tapping on the sides agitating a scattering of tambourine rattles bolted loosely to the body, and a slithery rattle by sliding a finger, brush or stick up the fretboard strung with 3 slackly wound strings.
Live At The Barn has traces of King Johnson's early sound, basic blues with backwoods soul. “Trouble In Mind” features an eerie solo that sounds like a theramin that picks up on Oliver's drawn out sigh at the end of the second verse and takes it into the ozone for an otherworldy excursion and keeps trying to slither in throughout the rest of the tune. Sister Rosetta Tharpe Jerry Lee Lewis. Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin, and even George Jones have taken a whack at it over the years, but Oliver's take nails this one to the side of the jukejoint so firmly it's gonna take a mighty mudslapper to jar it loose.
“Tried and Tempted” is a hybrid of MM&W and King J, starting out with a slinky jazz lick that keeps sneakin off into the swamp to dip a toe in the muck before slithering back to sophistication. But it finally loses all pretensions of propriety when Oliver's guitar solo stirs up the soul fonk somethin' considerable like a Stax record session with Steve Cropper plucking the soulful strings.
“Here's a little Saturday night music. I call and you respond,” Wood says, introducing the blues chestnut “I Got Loaded.” Little Bob's '65 version is swamp pop gold,but the song has been amped up and slotted into virtually every bluesman on the planet's set list.
Tab Benoit's version is a window rattling shack shaker, but the Wood Brothers' is slinky, syncopated and folky, a pleasant variation on the roof-raising bar band crowd stirrer-upper.
The set closes with “Ophelia,” which takes big balls to perform in Levon's house. If you were lucky enough to hear Levon open his set at MerleFest in '08 with that tune, you'll never accept any substitutes. At 68, Helm sounded as good as he did when he performed that song when he was 36 at the Band's Last Waltz in San Francisco 's Winterland. But Oliver gets a special dispensation, as an avid admirer of Helm's who jammed with him and daughter Amy at the Barn on numerous occasions, and named his son Levon. His vocals sound eerily like Levon's and he tears off big clankin' chunks of electric stringed tribute, then Oliver lets brother Chris slide in underneath with some slinky bass before he takes it back vocally to down-home Appalachian soul, Levon-style.
They might not call it King Johnson no more, but there's still plenty of royal blue blood coursing through the Wood Brothers. Tap a vein, have a taste, and pass it around.