The Wood Brothers were at a crossroads. As recording began on their eighth album, so did the need to address the group’s mounting popularity. In short, the concert venues being booked for touring were now bigger, so the music being made had to expand as well.
Such a growing pain encouraged guitarist/vocalist Oliver Wood, sibling bassist Chris Wood (who also doubles as one third of the avant jam band Medeski Martin & Wood) and drummer Jano Rix to fashion a once intimate and conversational mix of folk, blues and pop into something a bit more electric.
The result was Paradise, the record that brings the Wood Brothers to Lexington for Monday’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.
“Oftentimes, we’re just reacting to our previous work in making a record, so we wanted to try something different,” Oliver Wood says. “That’s the first inspiration: to explore different sounds. I think this record is a little heavier, musically. There are more rock ’n’ roll songs in there and also some pretty quiet stuff. We’re just playing larger venues now along with a lot of festivals, so I think we’re certainly affected by our environment. We’re realizing, ‘Hey, if we’re going to go over at a big festival, we’re going to need to have some bigger guns once in awhile.’ So we have a few songs like that.
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“Lyrically, I don’t think we really were conscious of what was being written about. It’s interesting to us that after finishing the record, we saw that a real theme had developed. All of the songs seem to have a lot to do with longing and desire and wanting to be connected to each other spiritually or otherwise. I guess that was on our minds, as well, as we were working on the record. That part we didn’t know as much about until afterward.”
The Wood Brothers were already conscious of broadening their sound when they enlisted Rix. Their initial recordings and tours consisted of Oliver and Chris playing as a duo. Though percussion and additional instrumentation peppered early albums, the recruitment of Rix for a pair of 2012 live recordings (Sky High and Nail & Tooth) cemented a richer trio sound for the Woods’ roots-savvy music.
“It’s been great because Jano is a multi-instrumentalist,” Oliver says. “Not only is he a drummer, but he’s a great piano player and keyboard player as well as a great singer. So we have all these new possibilities being created by what he brings to the table. Then from a live perspective, too, he’s really sonically increased what we’re able to do. We can still break down and play very low key and be more subtle or we can put him on the drum set and do rock ‘n’ roll. It works each way.”
Paradise is also a document of independence. It constitutes the first studio work the trio members have produced by themselves (John Medeski of MMW produced two early albums while Nashville guitarist and song stylist Buddy Miller handled 2013’s The Muse). The new record also ends a recording alliance with country star Zac Brown, who served as executive producer for the Wood Brothers’ four previous records, all of which were issued on his Southern Ground Artists label.
“Zac was super supportive,” Oliver says. “He has a great vision for exposing an artist. I think being on his label while it lasted was definitely a good thing for us. On the other hand, I feel like the real fan base that we have built gradually over the years … that is really our audience.
“I think there is a small fraction of the radio listening audience that may be interested in what we’re doing. But when you play at a Zac Brown concert, everybody is there to see Zac Brown. That’s fine. My point is, I kind of like our own spot. I don’t need to be at the top like that. That would be a little overwhelming for me. Zac has an amazing capacity for performing and entertaining people. We’re very grateful for having been in that situation. But I’ve got to say I love the middle a lot. That’s more my speed, you know?”
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com