Among its many discrete charms, The Wood Brothers’ new CD The Muse features a crafty little number, buried well down the program, which gracefully frames the Boulder-native siblings’ quizzically symbiotic approach to songwriting. Titled “Keep Me Around,” a poignant ode of gratitude to a patient companion, the piece opens with bassist Chris Wood working a scale-ascending bass figure, seemingly tapping his jazz training, while brother Oliver picks out a delicate country blues guitar accompaniment, before the two open the thing up into a rousing, seventh-chord chorus, percussionist/keyboardist Jano Rix filling out the sound with his pronounced-as-it-appears “shuitar.”
The seemingly disparate mash-up of styles gives the otherwise modest song a gentle, buoyant loft. Crafting cohesion is the subtle art of creating something its individual parts might not have suggested on their own.
“That’s how that tune began,” Chris Wood says of his bass line on “Keep Me Around.” “That, and ‘Honey Jar’ is another example, where Jano and I were just playing together and came up with a groove, and Oliver was probably nearby tuning a guitar and he said, ‘Keep doin’ that!’ and recorded a little iPhone voice memo thing so he could remember it. And then it kind of went from there, where he started adding form and some lyrics to it.”
The Muse has the feel of maturation for the Woods, a kind of redemption of promise. Although they grew up together in Boulder, the brothers pursued widely divergent careers, with Chris studying jazz bass at the New England Conservatory of Music before co-founding the avant-jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood in the early 1990s, while guitarist Oliver headed off to Atlanta, where he toured the Southeast as part of King Johnson, one of the region’s mainstay blues and funk outfits. A family reunion in Boulder and a couple of informal jamming sessions prompted the two to work up some songs and put out an album in 2006.
But Wood is quick to point out that the band — and it really is a band now with the addition of Rix, who handles percussion on standard drum kit and through his shuitar (an old guitar grafted with various forms of found-object noise makers, like tin cans — don’t laugh, it works) as well as keyboards — really draws from its common formative years exposed to a wide variety of folk and roots music courtesy of their father, a molecular biologist by day and hobbyist musician at night. He points to “Neon Tombstone,” a humble testimony to a bruised life not yet ready for its expiration date, shaded with gospel overtones.
“‘Neon Tombstone’ is a tune,” Wood says, “where I had a chorus and I played it for Oliver, and then he happened to have some verses that went along with, and we just sort of slapped the two together, and somehow it worked.
“We’re both gospel freaks, we love gospel music. And while we’re not really church-going people, we love the music, especially the stuff coming out of the black church. … It’s so rich, and people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Aretha Franklin are our heroes, as well as people like Ray Charles and other people drawing from that tradition. “I think what most people don’t realize is that Medeski Martin Wood [MMW], and Oliver’s past with King Johnson and all the things he’s done, at least 80 percent of the influences of both of those groups is the same. MMW was listening to the same stuff — Ray Charles, Sly and the Family Stone, all kinds of roots and gospel and blues and folk music from all over the world — and so there’s a little 5 or 10 percent of some fringe, crazy stuff, like contemporary classical and free jazz. But it’s mostly the same influences. It’s just that these two bands were developed in completely different situations.
“MMW was developed in New York City, the downtown music scene, so we were in this environment that encouraged a certain thing and inspired us to a certain thing. And Oliver was down south with his band, in a completely different environment with something different happening. But we actually have a lot of the same influences and things that we reference back to when we work together.”
Wood adds that the addition of Jano Rix and his contributions — keys, percussion, ambient dressing — has helped the duo expand into places where it really couldn’t go before.
“By the time we recorded the record, we had a couple of years of touring with Jano, and we were able to explore different textures and sonic combinations that we can do with him…He’s a really accomplished piano player, and a great singer, so we can do three-part harmonies. We feel like we can play really spare and folky, or we can play like a rock ’n’ roll trio. And everything in between.”
On the Bill: The Wood Brothers play the Fox Theatre on Friday, Dec. 6. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, $22 day of show, plus $2 for under-21 tickets. Ben Sollee opens. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.