I have a musical secret. As much as I love and cherish folk, blues and bluegrass, at my core, I’m a jazzbo. If I really was going to be abandoned on that proverbial desert island, I’d have more jazz than anything. And because I really value modern music and innovation, I’ve become a devoted fan of Medeski, Martin & Wood, a trio that’s enjoyed inspiring commercial success for a strictly instrumental and improvisational band. A lot of folks in the rootsy community have caught on to these guys over the years, and certain jamgrass bands are likely to have shared stages and audiences with MMW, who have a certain roots sensibility themselves. Keyboardist John Medeski had a side band once with Robert Randolph (pedal-steel genius) and the North Mississippi All-Stars, and I’d like to formally propose a reunion of that band on Music City Roots. Any time guys.
But I’m happy to say we have another, much more here-and-now MMW-related band arriving this week. The Wood Brothers are Oliver and Chris. They are co-writers and musical co-equals who take advantage of locked harmonies, arresting songwriting and an improbable number of sonic ideas in a stripped down acoustic band. Oliver does the guitar work, and he has a big, penetrating voice with a razor edge inside it. Chris, the bass player, is the Wood in Medeski, Martin &… His particular acoustic bass tone is one of my favorite sounds in the world, and when I hear him playing at sound check on Wednesday I’m probably gonna germ him like a sorority girl.
Chris and Oliver heard great music growing up out West, anchored by a dad who held picking parties and loved roots music. The bros learned and played music together but stopped collaborating when the jazz band got hot. A few years ago they reunited, and now, three full-length albums later, they seem on the verge of a real breakthrough. I didn’t really catch on to their early music, but the new CD, Smoke Ring Halo is a fixture around my house all of a sudden. Oliver’s voice and the bass play off each other beautifully, and drummer/percussionist Tyler Greenwell fleshes out the groove as the third official member of the band. With guest spots by Medeski, horns and even producer/audio god Jim Scott on something called a flexitone, this record just sails through its tracks. It’s soulful, down-home and fascinating at the same time — a tough trick.
What else is going to happen this week? Man, it’s looking great. Tiller’s Folly is returning to open the show, which is nice work if you can get it. They’re a focused fusion trio that loves bluegrass and the native folk traditions of their Canadian home. They’re acoustic masters and great showmen. Another important Canadian arrival is that of Colin Linden and his band Blackie & The Rodeo Kings. Linden is an incredibly distinguished writer and producer who’s worked with Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris and Robert Plant. This pan-roots band with Stephen Fearing and Lee Harvey Osmond formed in the mid 90s and has been an ongoing project ever since. Their new album Kings & Queens features guest vocals from a series of top-flight women, including Lucinda Williams, Pam Tillis and and Rosanne Cash.
Also on tap, newcomer Rebecca Loebe and the astonishing duo of Tim & Nicki Bluhm, whose YouTube videos were enough to make me a fan right away. We hear a lot of good voices on the show, but this looks to be special.
Is there a coherent theme to all this? Actually yes. Our guests this week are all on their way to play the annual Folk Alliance convention in Memphis next weekend. It’s the kind of lineup that will make you forget any idea that folk music implies something out-of-touch, old-fashioned or boring. It’s going to be another great night.