Ten years ago I was studying abroad in Ireland. It was January and the heat in my house was broken. The first night I called my mother crying, watching my breath, gray clouds around my face. When we hung up I put on all of the clothes that I had packed, my winter coat, and burrowed myself under a blanket. I situated my laptop under my blanket tent and played the Wood Brothers and Andru Bemis until I fell into a bone chilling sleep.
A month or so later, I was still cold, but I had settled in, was working on my writing degree and doing a radio show on campus. One day, in the studio, I came across a YouTube video of the Wood Brothers performing for Mason Jar Music in a stairwell at St. Cecilia’s School in Brooklyn.
I’ve been listening to that same YouTube song, “Luckiest Man,” for ten years, and wondering what the Wood Brothers have been up to. I kept that song to myself, like a little treasure, and felt like the Wood Brothers were fictional musicians that I’d imagined on a cold Limerick night.
I know that’s silly, the Wood Brothers are really accomplished. Blue Note Records released their first album in 2006, and since then they’ve come out with around seven more albums as the Wood Brothers. They had even performed in my hometown of Ann Arbor at The Ark, around that same time, ten years ago. But, I still liked to consider them my personal treasure.
Recently Oliver Wood started his own project, The Oliver Wood Trio, and came out with the album, Always Smilin’. It felt a little like a pilgrimage for me to see Wood at the Ark in May. Obviously, in the last ten years Wood and his music changed, bloomed, smoothed. I am different too.
From the first minute that Wood and his bandmates, Ted Pecchio on bass, and Jano Rix, on keys, percussion, keytar, and occasionally guitar, stepped out, there was a feeling of relaxed professionalism and complete control over notes and the crowd. Wood told us that the trio would be playing some songs from the Wood Brothers, covers, songs from the new album, and just “winging it.”
Wood and his bandmates know each other well. You can see that they trust one another. For them, winging it means experimentation, new melodies, themes, and riffs, without one uninteresting moment. Once, Rix took a solo on keys and Wood hummed along, comping. It was like watching a conversation. Rix took some of Wood’s vocal ideas and played them on the keys and the drums (at the same time, mind you! Rix is a master multi-tasker). The trio played a Bob Dylan cover, an Allen Toussaint cover somewhere near the middle of the show (this one was my personal fav and it got many people up to dance), and then later a Joni Mitchell song.
Wood jokingly referred to Rix as the MVP in the band and I can see why. Wood brings a folky, blues feel to the band, and Rix builds on those layers and adds his own. He can play really complex rhythms that sound latin in origin, or, sometimes, like in their cover of “Buckets of Rain,” Rix plays the cowbell. Together, Wood, Rix, and Pecchio are masters of bringing their songs straight back to the basics, drums, guitar, and bass, and then building back up to something that sounds more like a six person band.
I heard several audience members remark that the sounds coming from the band couldn’t be from just three people. Of course, the trio did bring out one more person, Ric Robertson, their opener, for several songs. As Wood said to the audience, “That boy can play.”
At first, Robertson reminded me of the character, Llwen Davis, played by Oscar Isaac in the Coen brothers film Inside Llewan Davis. He came out traditional style, just a man and his guitar, and played us this amazing and moving mix of folk, country and blues. Some of my favorite lyrics came from Robertson’s song, “Anna Rose.”
Robertson sings, “You stay with me everywhere I go…/ But on the days I’m blue/ And feel like checking out of this world too/ I send a whisper in the world to you.” My dad, my forever concert plus-one, told me to tell y’all that there’s a sorrow in Robertson, and regret in his vignettes. I agree but there’s a lot more too. Robertson is funny and playful. He was quick to laugh during his set, to joke, and to add puns to his lyrics. Robertson also played piano during his set, and when the trio called Robertson on stage he played a mandolin. Robertson fit in seamlessly with the band, adding some embellishment, some flourish, onto Wood’s guitar work and Pecchio’s funky bass lines. It made me happy to see the four of them together and the sentence, just some dudes playin’ their favorite tunes, came to mind.
The trio played for an hour and a half. They came back out to play a single song: my Limerick song, my cold day song, my actual favorite Wood Brothers’ song, “Luckiest Man.” It was the same, but of course different too. There was still the richness of Wood’s voice and the warmth of the main melody, but there was more this time. Rix kicked out some percussive beats that gave a new tang to the song and Pecchio brought out some funk, and of course, this time there was the harmony of the trio’s vocals coming together.
I guess that’s what years do for you. I’m not going to tell you that I’ve let go of my favorite version of the song, the stairwell version, but I also can’t promise that I won’t listen to this new version for ten years if I find it on Youtube. I always thought of the Wood Brothers as being a folk and blues mix, but together, the Oliver Wood Trio can transcend to a hypnotic mix of folk and blues, funk and gospel, country and jazz.