Levon Helm’s barn in Woodstock, New York, was a perfect venue for the Wood Brothers’ most recent album, Live at the Barn.
Eight of the album’s nine songs were recorded last year at the barn, which is officially known as Levon Helm Studios. The album closes with “Ophelia,” which Helm, the Band’s late drummer, mandolinist, and vocalist, sang on the group’s 1975 album Northern Lights-Southern Cross.
“The coolest thing about the new live record is the audience—and it’s because of the venue,” says Oliver Wood. “Levon’s barn is special, and people who go there really get it. They love and respect the music. They know when to be quiet and when to explode into cheering. They’re really a part of the show.”
Chris Wood is amused by how quickly the album went down.
“We did it all in one take— haha!” he says. “But seriously, we played one set of music in Levon Helm’s barn, and, just like that, we had a record. It felt honest and pure.”
The Wood Brothers—who just began a 32-date U.S. tour—now have five studio albums, three live albums and an EP of cover songs in their catalog, and they plan to release a new studio album this winter. The 32-date tour, which began Sept. 2 in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, comes this month to Nashville (Sept. 13) and the FreshGrass music festival (Sept. 15-17) in North Adams, Massachusetts, before ending Dec. 2 in Lafayette, Louisiana.
The Wood Brothers’ last studio album—2015’s Paradise—was recorded at Dan Auerbach's Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville, where the brothers now reside. Derek Trucks played guitar, and his wife, Susan Tedeschi, sang on one track.
The Wood Brothers say Paradise is “an album about longing and desire and the ways in which the pursuit of fulfillment can keep it perpetually out of our reach.” The album—the first one featuring Chris Wood on electric bass—is their “most sophisticated” and “most rocking” release, the brothers say.
“I’m really proud of that record—the first one we produced ourselves,” Oliver Wood says. “It was hard work, and we learned a lot. There are always things you think you could have done better, but I like all our albums as snapshots of that time in our lives.”
On Paradise, it felt like “the Wood Brothers gelled as a trio,” Chris Wood says. “Oliver, Jano (Rix, the group’s drummer, keyboardist and vocalist) and I self-produced the record. We felt like we owned the whole process. I think we found our voice as a trio, but it’s still ongoing and evolving. We're far from done.”
Buddy Miller produced and played baritone guitar on The Muse, the Wood Brothers’ 2013 album. Oliver Wood calls the album “another cool snapshot” of the band’s career.
“Buddy was a very sweet and cool presence in the studio,” he says. “Somehow he did a lot to make us feel comfortable and have fun, and we are huge fans of his musical sensibility. I’m also very proud of that album. It marks our first fully collaborative effort in Nashville with our beloved drummer, Jano Rix.”
Chris Wood says The Muse opened the door to the making of Paradise.
“Working with Buddy gave us the confidence to do what we did on Paradise,” he says. “He was a guiding light but allowed us to steer if we wanted. The Muse was the beginning of our Nashville journey.”
The Wood Brothers’ style of music is “a multigenre roots blend,” Oliver Wood says. “I guess it’s just our particular recipe of mostly American roots musical ingredients.”
Their music is “American roots reinterpreted,” Chris Wood says. “I’m half-joking, because I never have the perspective to know what to call what we do.”
Oliver Wood says his musical heroes growing up were Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimi Hendrix, and Ray Charles — artists who “really cut through everything else with pure emotion.”
“As kids,” Chris Wood says, “we listened to a lot bands from the ’60s and ’70s—the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd. After Oliver started playing guitar, he began buying records by great blues musicians — Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, and all the Kings and the Johnsons — who influenced those bands. When I dug deep into jazz, my hero was Charles Mingus. He had the musical sophistication of Duke Ellington but retained something raw akin to a Delta blues musician. I loved that.”
The best concert Oliver Wood ever attended was an Albert Collins show at age 18.
“I remember being completely moved, entertained, and inspired,” he says. “It really made me want to do what he was doing. Subconsciously, I think I liked how it made everyone in the room so happy and connected. That’s what I get off on now as a performer.”
A comeback performance by Cuban mambo pioneer Cachao at SOB’s in New York City was the best concert Chris Wood ever attended.
“I stood about four feet from his bass in the front row and felt like I was soaking up something special at point-blank range,” Wood says. “I saw a great Grand Central Station show in New York City at Tramps. Seeing Larry Graham was eye and ear opening. What he did was so innovative, yet he kept it simple. The power was in the sound and the rhythm. Cachao was the same — big sound, simple playing, but rhythmically very sophisticated. Both had a playful but powerful groove.
“I saw a great Aretha Franklin concert in New York City,” Wood adds. “She had preachers performing who could masterfully build from a sermon to a song. I also saw an incredible Balinese orchestra in New York City that played otherworldly music with amazing, exotic sounds and rhythms.”
A concert that the Wood Brothers played in Boulder, Colorado, may always remain foremost on Oliver Wood’s mind.
“I was really happy that my mom, a poet, got to see us play the Boulder Theater before she passed away in 2007,” he says. “I think she was really happy to see Chris and me working together and being creative. She was able to see that this career worked out for us, and we were happy grown up. That was a big deal to me.”