Venue: The Sidewinder
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 2 August 2016
Opening Act: Cian Nugent
I was getting a bit concerned when the scheduled start time of 8pm rolled around and nothing was happening. Maybe the venue had deceived us, hoping to get more people in the door, and actually expected to start a half-hour late. 8:30 came and went with no activity. Around 8:45, I finally recognized the members of Woods moving around on stage. Right as I concluded that the opener must have no-showed, I heard an "excuse me" in a decidedly Irish accent right behind me. It was Cian Nugent, carrying three guitars. He briefly conversed with Woods up on stage and they cleared off, leaving him just about ten minutes before their scheduled set time of 9pm. The house music finally quieted. Cian apologized for his delay, blamed a mix-up with time zones, and said he still had time for two songs.
Cian played what looked like an acoustic guitar with an electric guitar pickup bolted over the sound hole. The combination gave him a tone that was beautifully clear, crisp, and sharp, yet still has the fullness of an acoustic guitar. Cian's lyrics were surprisingly well put together, but his voice was decidedly secondary to his easygoing but intricate fingerpicking patterns. He even managed brief, melodic solos in both songs. I was disappointed that I didn't get to see more of him, as he certainly had promise. I liked his bluesy folk feel and thought that with more time on the stage he could have really shown some outstanding guitar skills.
Immediately after Cian stepped down, Woods came up on stage. They started out as a five-piece with Jeremy Earl on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Jarvis Taveniere on lead guitar and mostly inaudible backing vocals, Aaron Neveu on drums, Chuck Van Dyck on bass, and new member Kyle Forester on keyboards, percussion, and excellent harmony vocals. They started with four songs in a slightly psychedelic vein of folk. I loved the basswork, and the songs were reasonably good, but I quickly began to tire of the steadiness of the sound.
At just about that time, Woods brought out guest trumpeter Cole Karmen-Green, Forester picked up a saxophone, and Earl switched to an electric guitar. The music took a radical jump towards a vibrant take on jazz. These songs were presumably from their latest album, City Sun Eater in the River of Light. The brass section was superb, the energy level picked up dramatically, and Earl started taking wild, extended guitar solos. Van Dyck's basswork only got better, and Neveu's rhythms got noticeably more interesting, but Taveniere seemed to fade into a corner. His guitar and vocals were both mixed low, and with Earl on lead, it didn't seem like there was much space left for him. Regardless, the subset of songs in that configuration was the strongest part of the set.
Karmen-Green left after this run of jazzy songs, and from then on the band pursued a third sonic path, rooted in their folk side but more willing to branch into psychedelic rock. Earl switched between acoustic and electric guitars, and Taveniere occasionally played more visible lead parts. Compared to the first few songs, the last part of the show was decidedly more upbeat and jammy, but it didn't approach the jovial jazzy experimentation of the middle section.
[Woods with Cole Karmen-Green.]
The band maintained a low-key, friendly demeanor that I appreciated for its honesty. For example, a particular audience member loudly and repeatedly requested the song "Make Time for Kitty" from the band's debut, How to Survive In/In the Woods (2005). Forester eventually responded and explained to the audience that there was a small contingent of fans that advocated for that song. He seemed willing to play it, and told Earl, "It feels right. Tonight should be the night." The rest of the band were clearly uninterested. Forester offered to play his own rendition, but then admitted that he couldn't actually do it.
I went to the show without really knowing what to expect. I came away pleased. Woods played a rather tight set of about 75 minutes, and after the first batch of songs, it was a solid show. It wasn't that those first songs were bad, but in comparison to what followed, they seemed less exciting. This wasn't helped by Earl's voice, which is naturally rather soft and vague, but was mixed in such a way as to be particularly clouded and mostly indecipherable. Otherwise, I liked their general sound, but what really made the band stand out was the jazzier material from the new album. It represents a laudable departure from their previously recorded work that I hope will continue to bring fruitful results.
Cian Nugent: B