Sunday, March 2, 2014
Port City Music Hall, Portland, Maine
I knew I wasn’t going to able to make it down to Portland for this show since I’d agreed to babysit my sweetie’s little ones while he was at work all day. After reading Ken Templeton’s show recap (he’s making writing these beautiful recaps a habit, so maybe I should start calling him an official whatbreesees.com correspondent?!), I’m so sad I missed the show. I also want to second Ken’s concert etiquette tips! Thanks, Ken!
“I don’t have a record label. I don’t have a booking agent. But the Wood Brothers invited me on this tour, because that’s the kind of people they are,” said Chris Kasper, the opening act for The Wood Brothers on a bone-chilling Sunday night at Port City Music Hall. I thought about what he meant and think it is very closely related to the person described in the Wood Brothers’ tune Postcards from Hell, about a talented musician struggling to make it. The chorus goes: “When you ask him how he sings his blues so well, / He says I got a soul that I won’t sell, / I got a soul that I won’t sell, / I got a soul that I won’t sell, / And I don’t read postcards from hell.” I don’t mean that the connection here is that Kasper said he doesn’t have a label and neither does the guy in the song–it’s that the Wood Brothers seem most interested in music and musicians that play for what Oliver Wood called, pointing to his heart, “the right reasons.” Call it passion, call it love – Oliver even called it selfishness, because musicians often leave their families for weeks or months at a time on tour – it is all corrupted by a pursuit of fame. The Wood Brothers also know that luck is involved and that there is talent the world-over that goes unrewarded in any material sort of way, and that the only way to keep going is to put your music or art or passion into the world for its own sake.
And that’s what they did last Sunday. The night began with three songs from their latest album: The Muse (the album’s title track), Keep Me Around, and Sing About It. The album is fantastic and these three songs anchor it. Each of them features three-part harmonies that filled the room. Oliver begins in Sing About It: “If you get too worried… / What you ought to do is sing,” and Chris and Jano join in on the chorus: “Sing about joy / Sing about love / And hopin’ it lasts / Sing about your troubles / And they just might pass.” There is a sincere belief in the power of music that runs through their songs – not just in overt references like this, but also in the sincerity of the lyrics throughout their catalogue. The Wood Brothers have been described as gritty, and I wonder if we use that word these days to talk about music that is honest and describes sometimes difficult subjects – in addition to using real instruments and featuring vocals that aren’t perfect, but are true.
After beginning with three new songs, the band played some older stuff: Pay Attention, from Smoke Ring Halo, and then a full-tilt version of Atlas from their debut album Ways Not to Lose. Check out Chris Wood’s playing on Atlas – there just aren’t that many bass players who can do what he’s doing on that song. It’s impressive on YouTube; it is jaw-dropping in person.
Oliver switched to electric guitar for a few songs: Twisted, Postcards from Hell, and the funky, really fun Who The Devil before bringing out “Big Mike,” a 360-degree microphone so the band could play “old time.” Oliver said, “Now the thing is about the olden times is that people didn’t have facebook and cell phones.” In other words, people actually came to concerts to listen to music, as opposed to coming to concerts to document their own lives.
This is an aside, but I have a few small rules for myself about concerts:
I don’t shout requests. I don’t care if other people do–I think it’s an honest expression of appreciation for the music–but I am always excited to see what a band or artist has chosen, or chooses in the moment.
I (now) allow myself one picture with my phone, but no videos. I found myself taking a video at a concert and essentially watching the song through my phone instead of really being present for the performance itself. There are enough videos on YouTube of these songs, but not enough chances to experience great music in person.
I (now) tell people to shut up when they’re talking during the show. Right at the beginning of this concert, Chris Wood was playing this beautiful introduction on his bass with a bow and someone says, “That ain’t no cello, that’s Chris Wood on the bass.” I was one of two or three people who immediately said shut up. Thankfully, the person did.
OK, sorry. So, they gathered around Big Mike and began with Firewater, one of the songs from The Muse I didn’t think I would hear, but am so glad I did. I actually listened to it on the way to the show in the car, and it is just gorgeous: “You think I’d’ve learned / All the times I was burned / Deserving the blues, / And I sure got ‘em. / The drinkin’ and pills / The head-shrinkin’ bills, / They got high.” They invited Chris Kasper and Kiley Ryan to join them for a haunting rendition of In The Pines, an old Leadbelly tune famously covered by Nirvana. Oliver encouraged Kiley to take a couple of sweet solos and his voice meshed perfectly with Kasper, Chris and Jano. (Of course, we also had to tell someone to shut up.)
The version of Luckiest Man was really cool. Normally, the song starts with Oliver strumming, then Chris and Jano joining for rhythm, but this version featured only the bass and some spare drumming for the verses, then the full band for the chorus, which the crowd belted: “Running is useless / Fighting is foolish / You’re not gonna win, / But still, you’re the luckiest man. / You’re up against / Too many horses / And mysterious forces / What you don’t know is / You are the luckiest man / You’re the luckiest man.”
What is amazing about this band is its range. They are able to have the whole place rocking back and forth with heavy, thick guitar licks, like those in Honey Jar and then quiet the whole place down on a song like Blue and Green. These songs were actually back-to-back, because Oliver broke a string on Honey Jar (only time on the tour, he said). He kept playing during Honey Jar, and the broken string seemed to encourage him to extend his solos. They took a second to regroup and talk about what to play next. Those first notes of Blue and Green were like a gift – so many people around me heard them and just said, “yes.” It’s an amazing song that captures how people we love are always here, even after they’ve left the planet.
The set ended with one of my favorite tunes, When I Was Young and the classic blues tune Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor. When I Was Young features some of my favorite Wood Brothers lyrics: “When I was young I never looked at the clouds and hoped for the rain. / When I was young I never thought this life should ever bring me sorrow. / When I was young I thought, someday everybody’s gonna know my name / When I was young my hardest work was waiting for tomorrow / … Now I’m grown and things are not exactly what they seem / The older I get, the less I know and the more I dream.”
For an encore, Chris Wood introduced their first song as by one of the great American composers, and they play it, even though it’s not in their typical genre. “People call us Americana,” he said, “whatever that means.” What it means, I think, is that your fans are as likely to dance to the melody as they are to dance to the beat. I’ll just link the song here, because it’s pretty fun and a nice surprise.
Their final song, One More Day, was just too damn good. It was full-energy, all-out. During the song, Chris put down his bass and just started dancing – so much fun (you can see his moves in the video linked above). I saw a friend after the show. “I hadn’t heard a lot of their stuff before this,” he said. “I gotta go get some albums.” It was an amazing show – another friend said it was in his top ten concerts of all time and that’s true for me too. It’s clear to me now why a buddy of mine once told me The Wood Brothers are the only band he would but a plane ticket to go see – and why, the next day, I was looking at their tour schedule, thinking, “You know Europe’s not that far…”