You gotta love free concerts in New York City during the summer.
Eight of the greatest musicians on the planet came together for an extremely fun and unpredictable night of music this past Wednesday in Manhattan. The occasion was the 2015 Lowdown Hudson Music Fest (formerly known as the Lowdown Hudson Blues Fest), an annual event put together by Brookfield Place -- a complex of office buildings squarely between the World Trade Center and the Hudson River. This year's two-day event was closed out by The Wood Brothers and The Word.
The two bands on the night's bill shared a lot in common. Chris Wood of The Wood Brothers and John Medeski of The Word have been in a jazz trio together called Medeski Martin & Wood since 1991. Another similarity is that each band has two brothers: The Wood Brothers feature Chris and Oliver Wood, while The Word features Luther and Cody Dickinson.
This was a great musical pairing as well, as each band brings a heavy knowledge and understanding of traditional music that's been passed down for many generations. The sense of musical revival perfectly complimented the revival still happening in the area around the World Trade Center in the wake of the 9/11 attack of 2001. What was once a war-torn, ravaged area is now one of the most beautiful public spaces in the city.
The Wood Brothers at Lowdown Hudson Music Fest 2015
The Wood Brothers took the stage after 6:30 PM for a solid crowd that spanned a vast range of ages and backgrounds, from high schoolers with their parents to hippies young and old to tourists from out of the country.
The band is now a trio comprised of Oliver Wood on guitar and vocals, Chris Wood on bass and harmonica, and Jano Rix on drums, melodica, and a custom percussion instrument that looks like a guitar called a "Shuitar." Between the three of them, they achieve a huge sound that pulls from a wide range of styles rooted in folksy Americana. On this evening, they turned out an exceptional performance that had the crowd dancing around and hanging on every word.
Frontman Oliver Wood is a star talent who perhaps doesn't get the attention he deserves as a singer, songwriter, and guitar player. When it comes to folk rock and alt-country, Oliver is one of the best guys around right now. He came out and fingerpicked some acoustic ballads before switching over to do some impressive slide guitar. He switched to electric guitar later in the set, keeping things interesting with funky rock 'n roll and inspired blues riffs.
Bassist Chris Wood has been (in my opinion) the single greatest bass player in the world of jazz music for over 20 years. Medeski Martin & Wood are a band who can do just about anything, and Chris is a guy who knows how to play unique stuff that compliments the song perfectly. On this evening, he played upright bass for the whole set, occasionally bowing the strings for some really beautiful moments. Several songs started with an extended funky bass intro, and Chris also provided backing vocals and some harmonica playing.
The third member of The Wood Brothers is Jano Rix, who joined the band after their 2011 album Smoke Ring Halo. He's the wildcard, providing a rhythmic foundation as percussionist and drummer but also providing backing vocals and melodica (a keyboard with a mouth attachment with similarities to an organ and a harmonica).
The Word at Lowdown Hudson Music Fest 2015
As the sun started to go down over New Jersey, The Word took the stage for what would prove to be a roller coaster of a set.
The Word are a jamband supergroup rooted in gospel music. The band features Robert Randolph on pedal steel guitar, John Medeski on Hammond organ / electronic keyboards, and the North Mississippi Allstars (Luther Dickinson on guitar, Cody Dickinson on drums, and Chris Chew on bass). They released their first album together in 2001 and the second in 2015. The large gap between albums is in large part due to their conflicting schedules in three separate bands that are constantly touring and engaged in recording projects on their own, as well as other side projects.
Opening up with the big beat and adrenaline rush of "Come By Here," the band commanded everyone's attention right off the bat. Robert Randolph immediately stands out, because he's one of the most energetic musicians you will ever see and his pedal steel guitar sound is so unique. On stage, Randolph is like the LeBron James of music, and not just because of the headband look. He's a powerful musician who can seemingly do whatever he wants, but he's always looking to set up the guys around him.
Surrounding Randolph on stage were the North Mississippi Allstars. Luther Dickinson's guitar playing sounded great all night. His greasy licks and warm tone brought to mind bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. Meanwhile, Luther's brother Cody was powering a freight train of a rhythm section. Chris Chew provided more than adequate bass playing, throwing in bass bombs that were perfectly in sync with Cody's drumming. To some people, Southern rock died in the '70s but in reality guys like these have been keeping it alive and fresh well into the 2000s.
With so much talent on stage, John Medeski might seem like a forgotten man. Tucked behind his Hammond organ and a slew of other electronic keyboards, it's easy to lose track of what he's doing. Most of the set was dominated by guitars, but there were more than a few times when Medeski's inspired keyboard playing pushed things to a higher level, as it teetered between classic gospel and futuristic progressive rock with electronic flair.
These five men come together to make music that is truly special. Not only is each member a virtuoso on their instrument, but they're also great listeners with an ability to adapt and compliment each other in the moment.
To be honest, this concert was a little sloppy at times. One of the risks of improvisational music is that miscues happen. It's all worth it for those moments when everything locked together, which had the crowd dancing and jumping for joy. There are times when it feels like the band gets bored with playing conventional songs and would rather push themselves to do things they've never done before, which takes some patience as a listener.
Listening to the band work their magic, they reminded me of Miles Davis's various groups who were chock full of talent and still came together to make music where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. This type of chemistry and improvisational ability is rare to find. What started as a project to play instrumental gospel music has turned into something much more creative. Looking at the setlist, you can see a cover of Alan Toussaint's "Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky (From Now On)" mixed between the gospel covers and the original material.
The Word are a band who transcends boundaries and borders in so many ways that they're difficult to describe in words. If you have an opportunity to see them, do yourself a favor and check it out.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with Robert Randolph from earlier this week.
All photos taken by Francesco Marano unless otherwise specified. Ⓒ Zumic, 2015