Oliver and Chris Wood, who separately built successful careers in music, collaborated in 2005 as the Wood Brothers. Oliver performed on blues rocker Tinsley Ellis’ most successful record, 1994’s “Storm Warning,” before he started his own blues-R&B group King Johnson. Chris in 1991 was a founding member of the avant-garde jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood. The Wood Brothers – Oliver on acoustic guitar, Chris on bass and Jano Rix percussion and keyboards — recently released its fourth album, “The Muse.” The band today begins a major tour which includes the Cargo in Reno on Jan. 18. Here is our conversation with Oliver Wood:
Tahoe Onstage: Tinsley Ellis told me you are the most talented player who has ever been in his band. Did he encourage you to start singing?
Oliver Wood: Tinsley really took me under his wing when I was a young, budding player and he gave me my first road gig. I learned so much about music and the music business from him. He was a real big brother-mentor type to me. I was playing rhythm guitar and background vocals. At one point he said learn a song and you get to sing one song a night. He gave me a gentle push and was just real encouraging. That is really what gave me the confidence to do it. I was coming from an insecure place about it and he really gave me a lot of support about it. I was an apprentice.
Tahoe Onstage: You have a compelling singing style. When you started to sing, where you trying to emulate a certain vocalist?
Oliver Wood: A lot of us have the same heroes and my heroes for singers were Ray Charles, B.B. King and Stevie Wonder and I know I sound absolutely nothing like any of those people. However, a lot of our singing styles come up from our limitations. I can’t sing like that. But a lot of times our limitations are what make us unique. I don’t think I was emulating any one specific person. I think later on I started to appreciate people like Levon Helm and Van Morrison, and those were a little bit more realistic people to emulate than were B.B. King and Ray Charles. So I just had a lot of heroes I was playing with like Tinsley and other people I used to hang out with in Atlanta. Chris Long was a band mate of mine in the band I started King Johnson. He was the bass player was another mentor and he was a great singer and songwriter who really kept pushing me to after Tinsley to keep singing and even start writing. And there was a guy named Donnie McCormick who was also an Atlanta hero in the music world who I admired. I am sure I subconsciously emulated those people. It’s not just the iconic people on records. It’s people who we work closely with who can’t help but be a big influence as well.
Tahoe Onstage: What inspired you and Chris to team up musically?
Oliver Wood: I think it was just one of those things that was bound to happen eventually. We played together when we were still teenagers living under the same roof and we really enjoyed that. It was something we were able to bond over just as much as throwing the football or whatever. When I left home, I moved to Atlanta and when he left town he moved to New York and we just went on these different journeys and took different paths. There was 12-13 years where we didn’t play together and we really grew apart as brothers. So I think there came a time when we just, for whatever reason when things slowed down, both figured out who we were both musically and as people and had put in our 10,000 hours of being on the road and learning how to be professional musicians. We got together at a family function and just played a little bit and wrote a couple of tunes and did some recording and if felt so good that we kept pursuing it and it became a bigger and bigger endeavor. So there was no one thing, but one thing we do talk about in interviews is there was a time when my band opened for his band and I got to sit in with his band and play a few songs and it was so fun and it felt so natural to sit next to my brother and play and we both had such a good time it was just shocking and we said, “Oh my god, why don’t we just do this?” That was a real eye opener and then it was just a question of time. I lived in the South and he lived in the Northeast. But we just started getting more excited about it and it just evolved into something bigger and bigger. Now we both live in Nashville and it’s a full-time family enterprise.
Tahoe Onstage: Where did you grow up?
Oliver Wood: Boulder, Colorado. We were both born in California. We lived in Pasadena until later in the ’70s when we moved to Boulder. Our musically formative years were in Boulder, Colorado. All that meant was listening to our dad sing and play. He was sort of a folky picker and singer who had an awesome record collection and that was sort of our entrance into the music world.
Tahoe Onstage: It must be very special to be close again to your brother after experiencing so many things being away from each other as adults.
Oliver Wood: I’m glad you reminded me because sometime you take it for granted. It is a very unique thing together because our lives are intertwined in a very cool way right now. A lot of people ask if we fight like the Kinks or the Black Crowes, other brother bands, and we don’t. We find it really easy to get along. We had the luxury of going off and maturing separately and not trying to put a band together in our 20s. That way we had the formative stages out of the way and don’t have the baggage and figured out who we were and sort of gained that self-confidence that comes from being older and more experienced and not really having ego trips and stuff like that.
Tahoe Onstage: Do you have fans of your other bands request those songs or do you just perform your collaborative work?
Oliver Wood: It’s pretty much all our collaborative stuff. I think in the very beginning we would get some fans like that and we still do once in a while but I think people who come see the Wood Brothers know what they’re coming to see and we don’t get requests for songs from the other bands. I think that some of the things people like from the other bands are already integrated into what we do by the nature of it, and the nature of our styles really haven’t changed since we changed bands. So I think people are getting what they want when they come out and see us.
Tahoe Onstage: You were quoted as saying the latest Wood Brothers album is the one that feels like the most band album. Could you elaborate on that statement?
Oliver Wood: This one, not only did Chris and I collaborate more on the writing, but it was our first studio album that we recorded with our drummer Jano who has been with us three and one-half years. Jano is a multi-instrumentalist who is a great singer. He’s primarily our drummer and our percussionist. Before we added him, we would hire people to come play. But it’s a different feeling to go out on the road with a whole band. Now, as a trio, it feels like more of a whole unit that practices and tours together and records together. That was what’s unique about this new, greatest record is that it felt like a band because it was. We’d been on the road with Jano for a couple of years. He’s amazing, not just as a drummer and percussionist but he’s a great keyboard player of all kinds, so he’s like having two guys and he can to all kinds of stuff in the studio so he added a lot to our sound and what we’re able to do.
The Wood Brothers
Jan. 13 – Belly Up Tavern, Solana Beach, Calif.
Jan. 14 – El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles
Jan. 15 – City Winery, Napa
Jan. 16 – The Fillmore, San Francisco
Jan. 17 – Rio Theatre, Santa Cruz
Jan. 18 – Cargo, Reno
Jan. 19 – Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Chico
Jan. 21 – McDonald Theatre, Eugene, Ore.
Jan. 22 – Wonder Ballroom, Portland
Jan. 23 – The Imperial, Vancouver, B.C.
Jan. 24 – Neptune Theatre, Seattle
Feb. 17 – George’s Majestic Lounge, Fayetteville, Ark.
Feb. 18 – The Bottleneck, Lawrence, Kansas
Feb. 20 – Boulder Theater, Boulder, Colo.
Feb. 21 – WinterWonderGrass, Avon, Colo.
Feb. 22 – Center For The Arts, Crested Butte, Colo.
Feb. 24 – The Vanguard, Tulsa, Okla.
Feb. 25 – Granada Theater, Dallas
Feb. 26 – The Parish, Austin
Feb. 27 – Gruene, Hall, New Braunfels, Texas
March 19 – Savannah Music Fest, Savannah, Ga.
March 20 – Suwannee Springfest Festival, Live Oak, Fla.
March 21 – ArtsPark at Young Circle, Hollywood, Fla.
March 28 – Hogs for the Cause, New Orleans
March 29 – Acadiana Center for the Arts, Lafayette, Louisiana
May 22 – De Oosterpoort, Groningen, NL
May 23 – PeTiCantus, Hoorn, the Netherlands
May 24 – Orange Blossom Special, Beverungen, Germany
May 30 – Stimmen Festival, Ettiswil, Switzerland
June 3 – DeRoma, Antwerp, Belgium
June 4 – Lantaren Venster, Rotterdam, NL
June 5 – Bitterzoet, Amsterdam
June 6 – Muziekgebouw Eindhoven, NL
June 7 – Lux, Nimegen, the Netherlands