Words: Alex Wood | Photo: @Martybar90
Over the past decade, I’ve watched the Wood Brothers grow from a low-key folk duo playing half-filled bars to a full-fledged rock band selling out large theaters. Unlike most bands, this evolution toward fame was both natural and deserved, better for both the fans and the music.
Their performance at The Vic on Thursday showed just how far they’ve come, the band delivering a well-rounded set that explored the furthest reaches of the folk-rock genre, a perfect blend of musicianship and songwriting.
The houselights dimmed and the band entered before their simple stage setup, the trio standing in the center of the stage for a spacious, harmony-reliant cover of “Stop That Train,” an early Wailers song. With three-part harmonies and melodica backing from percussionist Jano Rix, the song was transformed to an old-time folk number, quickly turning into the band’s own “Two Places.”
The slow-paced opening provided a feeling of intimacy in the 1,400 capacity theater, a reminder of simpler times in the band’s past.
As a bass solo led to the opening chords of “Keep Me Around,” the music slowly began to build to a groove, Rix playing percussion on his rigged guitar, beating its sides and symbols to add depth to the band’s sound.
Still, the set felt relaxed as the band entered “Loaded,” it’s laid-back sing-along vibe filling the theater well but lacking the climactic momentum of the band’s biggest moments.
The band continued to slowly build momentum, the first six songs feeling like a crescendo leading to “Paradise,” the title track from the band’s excellent last record.
After the cool calmness of the opening songs, “Paradise” felt explosive, its upbeat groove begging for dancing, the audience and band both succumbing to its party-ready vibe, with Rix even fitting a drum solo into the song.
As the band re-entered, the sound seemed impossibly large for a trio. It occurred to me that this is precisely how the band grew to such proportions, graduating from small, intimate spaces to larger venues. This was no longer the simple folk of the set’s first four songs, but pure rock ‘n roll.
And it was all for the better.
A slow, slick bass groove became an almost unrecognizable cover of The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” the song transformed to a smooth jazz track.
“Even though we’re not kooky baseball people, it was refreshing to see ya’ll pull that out last night,” singer Oliver Wood said after the song, referring to the Cubs’ World Series win.
“American Heartache” followed, the song building endlessly toward a massive guitar solo, Oliver’s improvisations matched by Chris’s always present bass.
Chris sang vocals on “Touch Of Your Hand,” Oliver’s intricate finger-picking and Rix’s percussion-guitar adding a simple but effective backing. “Blue And Green” kept things relaxed, Chris using a bow on his bass to create an unbelievably rich sound.
Few bassists have ever performed with the conviction and proficiency of Chris Wood, a fact proved during a long, resonant solo leading into the dynamic “One More Day.” Amongst the band’s best writing, the song shifts from section to section, almost forcing the audience to dance.
As Rix took an extended solo on the drum set, bassist Chris Wood set down his instrument to dance across stage, a passionate but strange form of salsa dancing proving just how much the band loved performing. Equipped with a piano behind the drums, Rix was able to keep a drumbeat with his feet while building a melodic improvisation on the keys, Oliver soon joining on guitar for a call-and-response section, Chris still dancing all the while.
As is tradition, the Wood Brothers then entered their “O Wood Brother Where Are Thou” section of the set, performing entirely unplugged into a single, antique microphone.
The band brought opener Dylan LeBlanc out for a fantastic rendition of The Band’s “Ain’t No More Cane,” each member trading verses, honoring the folk tradition. The trio then played a quiet, reflective “Liza Jane,” a song that fit the acoustic format perfectly.
Throughout the set, Oliver gave genuine praise to the city of Chicago, referring to it as being in the “top two places” the band likes to perform.
The band returned to amplification for a lively remainder of the set, beginning with the funky “Wastin’ My Mind” before fan-favorite “Postcards From Hell,” the audience singing along loudly over Oliver’s vocals.
“Singin’ To Strangers” brought the band back to rock, while “Shoofly Pie” felt like a combination of each element of the band’s style, with funky verses, tempo shifts and three-part harmonies giving an irresistible sense of joy to the music.
The show’s encore included the band’s first hit, “Luckiest Man,” with the audience singing the chorus, Oliver stepping back from the microphone entirely. “Honey Jar” closed the set with electricity, its rock ‘n roll boogie giving way to an effective half-time chorus.
With a combination of soft, delicate folk songs and funk-inflicted rock, the Wood Brothers’ set outlined exactly what makes the band amongst the most fun touring acts today.
1. Stop That Train (The Wailers cover)
2. Two Places
3. Keep Me Around
5. Smoke Ring Halo
6. Mary Anna
8. Midnight Rider (The Allman Brothers cover)
9. American Heartache
10. Touch Of Your Hand
11. Blue And Green
12. One More Day
13. Ain’t No More Cane (The Band cover)
14. Liza Jane
15. Wastin’ My Mind
16. Postcards From Hell
17. Singin’ To Strangers
18. Shoofly Pie
19. The Luckiest Man
20. Honey Jar