Deep in the grain

The Wood Brothers come home

Dave Kirby | Boulder Weekly

Talking with guitarist/songwriter Oliver Wood about his collaboration with brother Chris Wood last week, we couldn’t help but summon the legacy of (in)famous brother gigs in pop music history. The Davies … the Gallaghers … the Knopflers … Well, OK, it was the knock-  down, drag-out, “you’re-fired” brother acts that came right off the top of our heads. Probably not quite a fair point of reference, but there it was.

“Oh, yeah,” Oliver Wood chuckles. “And don’t forget the Robinson brothers. Black Crowes. They went through some stuff, too.”

But this one isn’t quite like that.

Bassist Chris Wood has spent the better part of two decades anchoring the bottom end of the immensely successful Medeski, Martin and Wood, the eclectic, serrated-edge jazz/jam trio from New York, iconic uncles to the edgier fringes of  the groove band movement, while guitarist Oliver has spent his time in Atlanta, as second guitarist in Tinsley Ellis’ band and then as founder and guiding force behind the jam/blues outfit King Johnson.

Both traveled long distances from their upbringing in Boulder in the ’70s and ’80s to vastly different locales and musical obsessions. Unlike the others, they came to their fraternal collaboration well into their own separate careers, later in life, really initiated by an impromptu jam at a family reunion in 2004.

They return to the ’hood on the heels of their third CD together, Smoke Ring Halo, a fully formed and eerily cogent collection of Americana nuggetry ranging from the crackling Appalachia of “Shoofly Pie,” the loping and woozy drinkers’ waltz “Stumbled In,” and the slippery country jazz of “When I Was Young,” curiously sly and brash for an otherwise reflective bit about growing up and learning a lesson or two along the way, kicked off by a bruising solo standup bass figure by Chris.

Many observers have hailed this as the duo’s most seamless and fully formed offering. Oliver agrees.

“Over the past several years, we’ve really gotten used to writing and singing together, but especially the writing is the part I think that’s really evolved,” he says. “In the early stages, I sort of had a bunch of songs, and we started off that way, and then Chris started writing a bunch of songs, and then we really started joining forces. I sort of feel like this album represents that the most.”

It can be a little hard to fully fathom collaborative songwriting — for all but the most desperately corporatized and formulized artists, the craft is a deeply personal exercise, chasing thoughts and recollections around with wordplay and meter and rhyme. The consumer can blithely accept a shared songwriting credit on a CD, but for artists who actually put their name to a song, and play it in front of a club or small theater audience, there’s an inevitable sense of territorial ownership attached to it.

Sharing that process with another songwriter is perilous enough — how much harder can it be with your own brother?

“Well,” Wood says, “I think the thing for us, and this came from our last CD Loaded, we realized we had a lot of the same musical influences, which goes way back to before Chris’ band and my own stuff, to the days where we grew up listening to our dad’s record collection and listening to our dad sing and play. So we’re coming back to our roots, in a way … Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Dylan, but also blues stuff like Lightnin’ Hopkins.

“So in a way, we’re going back to that, but maybe more importantly we’re going back to a lot of family issues, when it comes to writing … On the Loaded CD, we wrote a lot about the passing of our Mom. … That sort of united us when it came to writing and what we were going though in our lives. And that was a kind of grown-up experience, but we also had issues with our parents, issues with each other, and now we both have wives and kids … so we just have a lot in common.”

The brothers Wood collaboration took on a life of its own after some live tapes in 2004 and a why-not project to make a CD in 2005 unexpectedly led to a label deal and tour offers — great press, generous plaudits from the folk/Americana crowd, and the sense that the duo was maturing and developing more or less out in the open gave the project the kind of room and support it needed to breathe and flourish.

But there’s always coming back home. “I love coming back to the mountains, absolutely,” he says. “I went to Boulder High, so did Chris, and our father [just retired from a professor seat at CU] still lives there. Yeah, it’s changed a lot since I lived there, but I look up to the mountains, and they still look the same.”