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By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
The 18th annual Four Corners Folk Festival will take place Aug. 30-Sept. 1 on Reservoir Hill in downtown Pagosa Springs.
Trust me when I say you do not want to miss this year’s amazing lineup of musicians including John Hiatt and the Combo, Natalie MacMaster and Darrell Scott, Elephant Revival, Slaid Cleaves, Aoife O’Donovan Band, Sarah Siskind and Travis Book, John Fullbright, Baskery, New Country Rehab, Rose’s Pawn Shop, Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams, The Lone Bellow, The Giving Tree Band and this week’s two featured artists, Jimmy LaFave and The Wood Brothers.
Jimmy LaFave was born in Wills Point, Texas, a small town 30 miles east of Dallas. He began school down the road in Mesquite and by junior high was making music perched behind his Sears and Roebuck drum kit. It wasn’t long before his mother traded a drawer full of green stamps for his first guitar and the switch to singer–songwriter was in progress. His family later moved to Stillwater, Okla., where he finished high school. Although he has lived in Austin for almost 30 years, many people think of him as being from Oklahoma, because of his strong musical ties to the state and what he often refers to as its “red dirt music.” It was in that landscape that he began to define his sound and soak up a combination of his experiences among authentic songwriters from the tradition of Woody Guthrie. Before leaving Oklahoma for Austin, Jimmy did some independent recording and toured the southwest with the first version of his band Night Tribe.
He moved to Austin in 1986, where he continued to write songs and to develop his musical ideas. In 1988 he recorded his self–produced tape, “Highway Angels … Full Moon Rain,” which won the Austin Chronicle Reader’s Poll Tape of the Year Award. This led to a recording contract with a small independent label.
By 1990 LaFave had put together an Austin version of Night Tribe and had become, according to the Austin American–Statesman, “a perennial presence upon the Austin music scene.” In 1992 Jimmy released a self–produced CD, “Austin Skyline,” which drew international attention to his songwriting and vocal talents, and led to a publishing agreement with Polygram Music. Due to his growing popularity and radio play on more than 200 stations, Austin Skyline and its label, Bohemia Beat, received national distribution through the Rounder Record Group. His second album, “Highway Trance” was released in 1994 followed by his third CD, “Buffalo Return to the Plains,” in 1995.
The grassroots demand and critical acclaim for Jimmy’s music, which led to extensive touring in the United States and Europe, was recognized in 1996 when he was asked to tape a performance for the PBS musical series Austin City Limits, and was invited by Nora Guthrie to appear in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to Woody Guthrie. That same year LaFave won his second consecutive Austin Music Award for Best Singer–Songwriter. His fourth CD, “Road Novel,” which was released in early 1997, received many glowing reviews. That year, he was asked by Nora Guthrie to speak and perform at the induction of Woody Guthrie into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. He traveled to Europe twice that year and also toured the US and Canada.
LaFave kicked off 1999 with the release of the CD titled “Trail,” a 15-year retrospective of bootleg tapes, live performances, radio shows and studio out takes. The double CD contains 31 tracks recorded in Texas and around the world. Including 12 Dylan songs, it answered the demand of fans for a “LaFave-does-Dylan” CD. In the liner notes, Dave Marsh noted, “Jimmy LaFave has one of America’s greatest voices, and this album is the story of what he has learned to do with it. It’s a unique instrument, with startling range and its own peculiar sense of gravity, liable to swoop in and wreck your expectations at any instant.”
In 2001 Jimmy released “Texoma.” The CD received some of the best press of his career. The ballad “Never Is A Moment” from the album, a radio favorite, became his most requested song ever. That year, when not playing his own musical dates, Jimmy toured with a Woody Guthrie tribute project he conceived titled “Ribbon of Highway–Endless Skyway.” The show features a rotating cast of notable musicians performing Woody’s songs interspersed with narrations from his many writings. He also played that year at the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, following it up with eleven more consecutive appearances there.
In 2005, Jimmy signed with the indie label Red House Records, and released “Blue Nightfall” to many favorable reviews. In April, Jimmy was then honored when one of his musical heroes, Bruce Springsteen, invited him on stage for a duet at his show at the Nokia Arena in Dallas.
In early 2007, “Cimarron Manifesto” was Jimmy’s second release on Red House Records where it spent several weeks as number one on the Americana music chart. Later that year Jimmy, along with recording engineer Fred Remmert and Dallas businessman Kelcy Warren, established Music Road Records. The label’s first CD release was “Ribbon of Highway–Endless Skyway,” a two-disc set from the Woody Guthrie tribute tour. Music Road also owns and operates two Texas-based recording facilities — Cedar Creek Recording in Austin and Cherokee Creek Recording in the Texas hill country.
Music Road released “Favorites 1992-2001” in 2010, a compilation CD from Jimmy’s Bohemia Beat Records back catalog, and “Depending on the Distance” in 2012, a record that was two years in the making. No Depression’s Jela Webb said this in her review of the CD: “Here’s the thing about LaFave — when he performs a cover (and he regularly peppers his live set-lists with a judicious selection of songs) he always makes the song his own … The LaFave originals mainly stay true to his style, bluesy ballads sang with such depth of feeling that even on a warm sunny day, they give you goose bumps.”
LaFave is no stranger to the Reservoir Hill stage, having appeared at both the Four Corners Folk Festival and Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass in the past. You can catch his performance this year on Sunday, Sept. 1, at 3:30 p.m.
Two brothers decide to form a band, adapting the blues, folk and other roots music sounds they loved as kids into their own evocative sound and twining their voices in the sort of high lonesome harmony blend for which sibling singers are often renowned. While that’s not a terribly unusual story, the Wood Brothers took a twisty path to their ultimate collaboration. Indeed, they pursued separate projects for some 15 years before joining forces.
You wouldn’t necessarily gather this fact from listening to “Smoke Ring Halo (Southern Ground),” the duo’s third full length album — their musical chemistry has never felt more profound. Oliver Wood (guitar, vocals) and Chris Wood (bass, vocals, harmonica) refine their rich, spacious sound on songs like the rousing opener “Mary Anna,” the back porch funky “Shoofly Pie,” the waltz time plaint “Pay Attention,” the elegiac title track, the gospel inflected “Made It Up the Mountain” and more.
With supple assistance from drummer Tyler Greenwell and a fleet of gifted guest players — not to mention Grammy nominated producer engineer mixer Jim Scott (Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Lucinda Williams) — the brothers simmer, swing and soar, shifting moods and time signatures with aplomb. As ever, Oliver’s lived-in, expressive voice and urgent fretwork bounce off Chris’ propulsive standup bass lines, in the pocket harmonies and ghostly harmonica phrases. But this time Chris contributed some lead vocals, displaying a startlingly pure tone on the dreamy “The Shore” and the slide spiced “Rainbow.”
They both imbibed the heady tones and stories of American roots music – notably folk, blues, bluegrass and country — at the feet of their father, a molecular biologist with a passion for performing.
“Even before we discovered his record collection, we listened to him around the campfire or at family gatherings,” Oliver recalls of assorted hootenannies at their Boulder, Colo., home and other locales. “He’d entertain anybody.”
Adds Chris, “Having that experience of live music at home was pretty important. It definitely affected the way my brother and I view music.” Their mother, a poet, meanwhile, taught them a deep appreciation for storytelling and turn of phrase.
Though initially, “too shy to sing,” Oliver became obsessed with the guitar, especially as voiced by bluesmen like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed. Chris, who cites the, “roundness, warmth and mystery” of those same blues recordings as a primary influence, studied clarinet and piano but gravitated toward jazz sounds; by the time he took up the bass he was fully enraptured. The boys discovered classic rock artists like Hendrix and Led Zeppelin on their own along the way; Oliver followed those monster guitar riffs back to the electric blues of “the Kings” (B.B., Albert and Freddie), Albert Collins and other midcentury masters. He too spent some time spellbound by the complex filigrees of bebop but, as he says, “I came back full circle” to roots music.
Their paths diverged after those teenage explorations. Oliver briefly attended UC Santa Cruz before dropping out to follow some fellow musicians to Atlanta, where he tackled Motown and other R and B covers on guitar in local clubs.
“I was learning how to be a working musician,” he remembers. “I didn’t yet have aspirations to be an artist.” Though that band didn’t last long, a regular Tuesday night gig at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack enabled him to hone his chops and learn from older players. He eventually secured a spot in the band of veteran bluesman Tinsley Ellis, touring widely and experiencing the elder musician’s “workhorse” schedule. It was his mentor Ellis who ultimately encouraged him to approach the microphone.
“He gave me a Freddie King song, ‘See See Baby,’ to sing in the set,” Oliver relates. “He encouraged me to write and sing. That’s where I got the fire to do my own thing.”
He formed King Johnson with his buddy Chris Long, layering R and B, funk, soul and country elements over their beloved blues influences. He toured constantly with that “labor of love” band during the 12 years of its existence; KJ released six albums and eventually became a six-piece outfit, including a horn section.
Chris, meanwhile, went off to the New England Conservatory of Music, developing his virtuosic skills on bass, studying with jazz luminaries like Geri Allen and Dave Holland and gigging regularly as a sideman. It was during a fateful session in western Massachusetts that he met keyboard wizard John Medeski; with drummer Billy Martin, they would go on to form the hugely influential, genre busting instrumental trio Medeski Martin and Wood in the early ’90s. MMW released a string of discs combining jazz, funk, blues, experimental noise and myriad other subgenres and styles into their own distinctive amalgam, and mesmerized audiences worldwide with their seemingly telekinetic improvisation. Wood’s colossal grooves on both electric and acoustic axes — not to mention his imaginative use of paper behind the strings and other sound altering techniques – made him the bass player’s bass player.
Eventually, King Johnson opened for MMW in Winston Salem, N.C., and Oliver sat in with his brother’s band.
“It was a slightly creepy experience, like watching myself” Chris notes. “He had a lot of the same impulses I did. Part of it was influences and part of it was blood.”
Oliver agrees. “It opened our eyes that we could communicate on a musical level.”
In 2004, the brothers seized the opportunity presented by a family reunion and recorded some material together on Chris’ mobile gear. The sound of their blended styles was instantly compelling.
“It was pretty amazing to get together with Chris,” Oliver muses. “We played together as teenagers, then we went in separate directions for 15 years. We’d developed our own thing and seemingly different styles and roads, but we were both blown away by how much we had in common. The roots are still there.”
Oliver took the music they’d recorded, added lyrics and finished it as a song. Encouraged by their initial foray, the Woods decided to take the next step, with Chris learning a batch of Oliver’s songs and the pair tracking a demo. Though they’d done it for their own amusement, MMW’s manager was sufficiently impressed to pass the music on to Blue Note Records. No sooner had they begun to think of themselves as a band than the Wood Brothers had a record deal. (Prior to releasing their album debut for the label, the pair dropped an EP, “Live at Tonic;” it was culled from their very first gig together, at the storied New York club.)
Oliver had spent years polishing his singing and songwriting but felt his guitar chops needed work. Chris, meanwhile, was a monster player who’d spent 15 years making instrumental music and had to re-acclimate himself to vocals and pop song structure. These different emphases ended up serving them well.
“I had these songs and could sing and play ‘em well,” reflects Oliver, “and Chris’ strength at the time was to take my songs and make ‘em sound completely cool and unique. Instead of a typical band situation, you had this incredible upright bass.”
2006 saw the release of their first album, “Ways Not to Lose,” which was named top pick in folk by Amazon.com’s editors that year.
“Modern folk and blues rarely sounds as inventive and colorful,” declared Amazon reviewer Ted Drozdowski, who deemed the disc “delightful” and declared the brothers “in absolute synch creatively.”
“Ways” was produced by MMW’s John Medeski, who had been stunned by Oliver’s compositions.
“He’s an unbelievable songwriter — his material is deep,” the keyboardist marvels. “I can’t tell you how many of Oliver’s songs I thought were old traditional standards. They just sound classic.”
Medeski went on to produce the Brothers’ 2008 follow up, “Loaded” (heralded as one of NPR’s “Overlooked 11”); he also contributes some tasty organ playing to “Smoke Ring Halo.”
“I just love his musical sensibility,” Oliver says of his brother’s longtime band mate.
Working with Jim Scott on “Halo,” the Woods were able to explore new sounds.
“Because he’s also an engineer, he’s very technically knowledgeable; he’s a fantastic sonic guy,” Oliver volunteers. “That’s why this record sounds so different from our others.” Also, Chris points out, “We recorded on two -analog tape this time, so it has that fat, natural sound we love.”
In 2010, the Woods and drummer Greenwell hit the road with roots rock phenom Zac Brown.
“It was about the best opening band situation I can imagine,” Chris says of the tour, which sometimes put the Wood Brothers before crowds of 20,000 — many times larger than the usual audience for their headlining gigs. “Zac was really great; he’d come out and play with us during our set, and invite us out to join in during his.” Oliver notes that he and his brother, “learned a lot by watching Zac and his band.”
Brown also wooed the Woods over to his own label, Southern Ground; he served as executive producer on “Smoke Ring Halo.”
And so the two brothers continued pursuing the musical adventure they’d begun in childhood. For although their paths diverged for many years, and they forged very different careers in disparate places, the Wood Brothers are never far from the musical currents that formed their musical impulses in the first place. It may be, in Chris’ formation, part influences and part blood. But, it’s all magic.
The Wood Brothers will bring their magic back to Four Corners this year, playing a main stage set on Saturday, Aug. 31 at 5:30 p.m.
The Four Corners Folk Festival is supported in part by a grant from Colorado Creative Industries. For tickets or additional information about this year’s Four Corners Folk Festival, including schedules, performer web links and more, visit www.folkwest.com or call 731-5582.