A bass string buzzes. A faint, hard-to-place sound rattles rhythmically. Percussion pops in and out unpredictably. These tics and light touches — some intentional, others incidental — make Wood Brothers recordings feel uniquely alive, and refreshingly true to life’s tendency to throw the unexpected our way.
“It’s not something you try to control or lead,” singer and guitarist Oliver Wood says of his group’s embrace of spontaneity. “It’s something that leads you.”
Wood hasn’t walked professionally alongside his brother Chris as long as you might think. As free flowing and intuitive as their playing has become over almost 20 years of being in a band together, it took more than a decade for the Boulder, Colorado-raised Wood Brothers namesakes to find common ground as musicians. Chris first gained acclaim as a bassist with the influential jazz fusion band, Medeski, Martin & Wood, which formed in the early 1990s. Oliver, the older brother by a few years, went his own route during that time, playing guitar for blues artist Tinsley Ellis before founding his own group, King Johnson. Informal jamming at family functions eventually sparked a collaboration that’s yielded seven studio albums, several live releases and even a Grammy nomination, for the 2018 LP, “One Drop of Truth.”
It also launched one of roots music’s touring powerhouses. The Wood Brothers have stopped in Richmond too many times for Oliver Wood to count. He remembers building from Tinsley Ellis gigs in Shockoe Bottom and small mid-2000s Wood Brothers shows at The Camel to crowds in the thousands watching headlining sets on Brown’s Island during Dominion Energy Riverrock and the Friday Cheers concert series.
“It’s fun to reach more people,” Wood says, “and we still have a great connection with them, especially if they’re fans that are following you around and singing the lyrics back. It’s sustainable, and we can support our families, and we can support the people that work for us, and it’s a slightly bigger operation. Still not on the huge side, but we still have mouths to feed, and so playing the bigger venues is great on many levels.”
His next show in Richmond will follow suit. The Wood Brothers perform — outside, once again — at Maymont Park on June 9 as part of a bill that includes alt-rock group Guster and the Charlottesville-based Mexo-Americana band, David Wax Museum. Oliver’s previous stop in town is another story.
Just over a month ago, he was in the familiar confines of The Camel, though this time he was leading a self-titled trio in support of his 2021 solo debut, “Always Smilin.’” With Virginian singer-songwriter Dori Freeman opening and a refreshingly tight-knit, inside setting, Wood found himself back at the start of the cycle of scale. “There’s not such a demand for it,” he says of his solo work, “so it’s smaller venues again. There’s something fulfilling about seeing people’s eyes, and being closer, and a little more intimate, and being able to be a little bit more subtle musically… I don’t get that with The Wood Brothers very often anymore.”
Making “Always Smilin’” was its own change of pace — one afforded by the pandemic-induced break from touring The Wood Brothers started in 2020. As life slowed to a crawl, time was suddenly an abundant resource. “The Wood Brothers is a very self-contained little bubble and family that's been really awesome,” he says. “Between that and raising a family and trying to be at home some of the time, it’s always taken up all of my time and energy. Honestly it was the quarantine that made space for me to go, ‘Oh, I can now do what I’ve been wanting to do, which is play some stuff that I don’t normally get to play, or work with some people that I never get to work with that I admire.’”
To make “Always Smilin,’” Wood linked up with longstanding collaborators such as Medeski Martin & Wood organist John Medeski and Tedeschi Trucks Band vocalist Susan Tedeschi. (The Wood Brothers’ multi-talented, multi-instrumental percussionist Jano Rix also contributed.) Newer partnerships can be heard as well, like the one Wood formed with North Carolina-based roots and gospel champion Phil Cook, who co-wrote the graceful country blues track, “Soul of This Town.” Wood is no stranger to co-writing, given the abundant compositional gifts of his usual bandmates, but “Always Smilin’” helped him broaden his songwriting horizons even further.
“Your peers are your mentors,” he says. “I always learn something when I co-write a song with somebody, whether it’s my brother, or whether it’s a friend… Everybody has some wisdom in them, whether they feel it or not, and it always mixes in. It’s just like making a stew, and there’s all these ingredients, and everybody’s got something to add.”
Wood also endeavored to listen more deeply to his own inner wisdom. He took meditation to a higher level during the pandemic, finding a renewed sense of grounding and skills he can employ in the face of anxiety and overwhelm. “Trying to do one thing at a time and slow down, and be more present with people and with myself — that just felt so good, and it took the quarantine to really bring that out and make it obvious. ‘Okay, this is pretty important. This is a much easier, better way to live.’ My goal as everything opened up was to keep that feeling.”
Feeling good physically is part of that. Wood says he’ll continue to wear a mask when flying, whether he’s traveling for work or fun. “I don’t want to miss my tour, and I don’t want to miss my vacation. I want to take care of myself in all the ways, if it helps even 50% [to] help me stay healthy and do the things that I want to do… Us being forced not to be able to do what we love to do made us realize how we took it for granted.”
He’s brought that sense of gratitude back to his main gig. “Being back on tour, those first first few shows, we were just elated – even before the shows, just to have rehearsals, and reconnect, and appreciate what we have and what we’ve built over the years, and how special it is, and how lucky we are to be able to have this brotherhood and musical family.”
That renewed enthusiasm is present in the studio setting as well. The band is currently writing and recording a new album, and Wood says the last six months have been especially productive — and enjoyable. “We’re already deep into it. We’re having the best time. I can’t remember the last time we had so much fun creating new recordings and writing together.”
The penultimate track on “Kingdom in My Mind,” titled “Satisfied,” paints a picture of contentment so deep it crosses over into the afterlife: “I'm gonna leave a big piece of heaven behind /and be satisfied.” It seems clear that Oliver Wood’s sense of satisfaction has only deepened since the song was recorded, and if The Wood Brothers work that tune into their set at Maymont, keep a close eye on Wood as he sings: You might see a slice of heaven open up in the here and now.
The Wood Brothers perform with Guster and The David Wax Museum at Maymont on Thursday, June 9. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the show starts at 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $37.50 to $57.50 and can be purchased at thewoodbros.com/#tour.