At Sunshine Blues Festival with Tedeschi Trucks Band, Dr. John & The Lower 911, and many more, Sun., Jan. 20, 11 a.m., Vinoy Park, St. Petersburg, $49.50, sunshinebluesfestival.com.
Family bands are a long-standing musical tradition, and the most fruitful ones seem to be anchored by siblings. Brothers, sisters, or combinations of the two share upbringings and sonic beginnings, learning to sing or play one instrument or another, trading records and exchanging ideas, practicing covers, then jamming together, writing material, performing it live, growing and evolving on a shared trajectory.
The Wood Brothers experienced a more roundabout development. There was a four-year age difference between guitar-rocking elder sibling Oliver and his jazz-minded younger brother Chris, and though they shared some musical interests, Oliver left his family’s Colorado home for California shortly after he graduated from high school, so they never really played together. “I started before Chris and had already found my path, and then he found his path, and the paths just weren’t meant to cross for a while,” Oliver explained when we chatted by phone last week.
Oliver settled in Atlanta, soaked up the sounds of the South — country-roots, gospel, Southern rock, and blues (“I just got really into that stuff, it became part of my musical identity”) — and eventually landed a full-time gig as back-up guitarist to vet bluesman Tinsley Ellis. “I learned a lot about the music business from watching him; the entertainment part, the business part, the day-to-day workings of a touring organization…” It was Ellis who encouraged Oliver to sing and gave him a song to perform each night to hone his talents. “He really encouraged me to practice and get it right and get better at it. I think he was acting consciously as a mentor at that time, and it was great, because I wasn’t going to do it on my own, and I really needed someone like that to push me.”
In the meantime, Chris finished high school, pursued his passion for jazz at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, took private lessons, and focused on ensemble playing as a jazz bassist. Then he met keysman John Medeski, re-located to NYC, and teamed up with drummer Billy Martin to form instrumental avant jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood.
By the time the ’00s rolled around, Oliver was an established sideman in the Southeast and a proficient songwriter who headed up his own roots-blues outfit, King Johnson, while Chris had become a bassist of some renown with MMW. Both musicians were so immersed in their own respective scenes that collaborating never occurred to them. “I think part of it is, you kinda get into a groove with your life, especially if you’re in different parts of the country,” he said. “Chris and I grew apart, not just musically but socially, and as brothers, too. There was 10 years there where we really didn’t know each other that well, we were just so busy in our lives and in different places.”
Their long-divergent paths finally crossed in 2004 when King Johnson joined MMW for a co-bill in North Carolina that found Oliver sitting in with MMW. “I think it just came time for us to get together again, as brothers and as musicians, and it was kind of nice the way it happened. By the time we’d done that, we’d sort of grown and put our 10,000 hours in and we’d already gotten good at what we do,” Oliver said. The brothers shared a newfound appreciation for each other’s talents and connected on a creative level, ultimately leading to a renewed bond and vows to collaborate.
The twosome made up for all the lost time with a string of recordings — a few self-released EPs, a few studio LPs on Blue Note (2006 full-length debut Ways Not to Lose and 2008 sophomore follow-up Loaded), and three albums via Zac Brown Band’s Southern Ground imprint: 2011 third LP Smoke Ring Halo, in 2011, and two volumes in a live album series, Live 1: Sky High and Live 2: Nail & Tooth. These impeccably recorded mixes, both issued last year, jump around the Wood Brothers catalog while revealing their hard-won chemistry, infectious energy, and eclectic alt-roots style. Sounds vary from the funky back-porch bounce of “Shoefly Pie” and taking-it-to-church blues rock drive of “Atlas” to the swampy-stepping pep of Allen Touissant’s kiss-off ode, “Get Out My Life Woman,” the slinkier creeping grooves of “Spirit,” and melodica-exotic strains of “Where My Baby Might Be.” Oliver’s pop songwriting sensibilities, guitar chops, and velvety soul-stirring vocals complement the strong support harmonies, supple low-end technique and improvisational tendencies of Chris, whose fat and buoyant grooves lend a certain airiness to the Wood Brothers aesthetic.
Despite spending so much time apart, the brothers’ relationship informs their music, most noticeably in lyrics. “We have a lot of the same baggage that we often deal with in songs,” Oliver explained, continuing, “The prime example of that is when we lost our mom a few years ago, in 2007, [when] we were making Loaded. That album was totally us processing that whole experience and doing so together, as brothers.”
Drummer/percussionist melodica player Jano Rix has added his easy backbeat and instrumental flourishes to the mix for the past few years, and they’re sure to be joined by any number of guests during their set this Sunday as part of the inaugural Florida-only Sunshine Blues Fest, headlined by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. “We’re pretty tight with Derek [Trucks] and Susan [Tedeschi], we’ve done some touring together, and I go way back with those guys,” Oliver said of the husband-and-wife team. “I’ve known Derek since he was 11 or 12. He actually played on the Tinsley Ellis record with me back in 1993.”
Oliver is open to any sit-ins that may arise, especially with the aforementioned couple. “I always love collaborating with Derek and Susan, and whenever we play together, we do something fun.”