The Wood Brothers’ second successful High Sierra

Tahoe Onstage

The Wood Brothers meet at the intersection between tender folk and wizened jazz.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Tony Contini

The Wood Brothers meet at the intersection between tender folk and wizened jazz. Brothers Oliver and Chris Wood grew up in Boulder, Colorado, surrounded by music. They took different paths, but ended up in the same place.

Oliver moved to Atlanta, soaked up Americana while practicing his craft with his band, King Johnson. Chris studied jazz bass at the New England Conservatory of Music and formed Medeski Martin & Wood.

Their time apart was spent learning about music, their strengths and what it takes to succeed as a band.

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage“Not necessarily monetarily or popularity wise,” Oliver said in an interview at the 2018 High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California. “But to be a good band, you have to have chemistry, you have to work at it and there a lot of sacrifices involved.”

When Chris moved to New York City, the cliques and attitudes turned him off to the jazz world.

“I got excited about the idea of being in a singer-songwriter band while bringing things I had learned and been inspired by,” he said. “I like the idea of inserting myself into a whole new context.”

The brothers’ former bands were double-billed for a show and Oliver sat in with Medeski Martin & Wood. That night, they realized they weren’t simply biologically, but also musically related.

“There was chemistry instantly there,” Chris said. “We both realized in that moment we have the same job and we should start doing something together. A family business, if you will.”

The Wood Brothers’ first studio album, “Ways Not to Lose,” was produced by Chris’ former bandmate John Medeski. Their latest album, “One Drop of Truth,” was released in February and crafted another way.

“The process was really different,” Chris said. “Usually, you write all the material ahead of time, book the studio time and record it all in one big, overwhelming session. This time, when we wrote a song, we went in the studio and recorded it.”

This technique allowed them to record something then forget about it for a while, like sonic journaling. They would revisit the tracks later with new perspective. As self-producers, this distance is important.

“It’s a good way to give each song its due attention,” Oliver said. “Instead of compromising by trying to get several songs done in a short period of time, you treat this one song as its own entity. Instead of album, you’re thinking song. That feels good.”

“One Drop of Truth” was released on their label, Honey Jar Records. They consider it a technicality and simply a way to put out their own albums. They pay to make the record, they own the masters.

“It’s not like we have a roster of artists on our label,” Oliver said. “We are our record company, we make all the creative decisions. Having made records all our lives, we feel qualified to produce our own records now.”

The album has tastes of blues-rock, folk and country. Despite the new recording technique, the songs cohesively blend due to lyrical content, approach and conviction. They switch roles when Chris takes lead vocals on a handful of songs.

They pull from their own experiences and the stories from people they love. There’s a relatable realism to Oliver’s twangy prose. Their biggest source is real life. The fun and challenging part for them is putting it into words that are ambiguous, yet representations of their feelings.

“None of us have the same perception of anything,” Oliver said. “We see different colors. We feel things a little bit different. We can relate, and it overlaps, but a good song leaves enough for the listener to interpret for themselves.”

They’re constantly working on music and constantly working on words, oftentimes separately, but they find each other eventually.

“Sometimes it’s just sounds,” Oliver said. “Chris will play something on the bass or Chris and Jano (Rix) will play something rhythmic and seemingly unique and it evokes an emotion.”

Tony Contini / Tahoe OnstageThe third leg of their folk tripod, multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix, provides the third part of harmonies and plays melodica, keyboards, full drum-kit and shuitar.

“We know what elements everybody has that can be useful,” Oliver said. “And it’s fun to twist those around and push each other out of boxes.”

One of those elements is Rix’s shuitar. A friend of his invented the instrument 20 years ago out of guitars found in the trash. They adhered washers, screws and other pieces of metal to old guitars for percussion purposes. His finger rings against the frets produce a guiro sound and his hands on the hollow body make bass and snare hits. There are plenty of shaker-doohickeys attached and he can use brushes on it for an additional feel.

“I showed up at the first rehearsal with these guys and I brought it,” Rix said. “They said, ‘Just do that.’ It allows us to get around one microphone. I can play anything I can play on a drum set with it.”

The Wood Brothers have fond memories from the first time they played High Sierra in 2015. They enjoyed the positive vibes, beautiful scenery and the diversity of the music.

“It’s never long enough,” Chris said. ” It’s kind of a tease. We never get to hang out and there are people I’d love to see.”

This year, they played on the Grandstand Stage as the sun set behind Quincy’s ponderosa pine trees. Rix hit falsetto harmonies and a barrage of drums, a frying pan, washboard, bells and whistles. During “Sparkling Wine” from their newest release, he played the main riff on keyboard while singing and playing drums at the same time. The man’s an octopus.

While Rix and Oliver jammed through an expanded version of “One More Day,” Chris boogied behind them across the expansive stage. He set down his standup bass and danced for himself and to excite the crowd. During a slide-guitar interlude, accented with dramatized actions and expressions from the brothers to the drum hits, a beer was split. They went back and forth with higher notes during the crescendo, and Oliver laughed at Chris’ highest note.

“What a lovely mess,” Oliver said as the song finished. “Still a good message, though.”

They played love songs and sing-along favorites such as “Postcards From Hell” and “Sing About It.” Chris treated the audience to his electric bass skills during songs like “Happiness Jones,” also from their newest. He even used a slide on it, possibly to give it the fretless feel he’s used to. There was one point when both brothers’ instruments were being attacked with slides.

They almost wrapped up the show, but were told they had time for another song.

“We have time for one more,” Oliver said to the crowd on the fourth day of the festival. “It’s a 35-minute Burt Bacharach medley, is that cool?”

Their charm is only surpassed by their skill and stirring, poignant music. They closed with an upbeat version of “Honey Jar” and left fans with a spoon full of honey where their hearts should be.

                                                                                                                                                — Tony Contini

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

About Tony Contini

Photographer and journalist Tony Contini graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in art photography. He loves working with bands and telling stories. Photography portfolio: https://www.TonyContini.com

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