With each new studio recording and subsequent supporting tour, the Wood Brothers continue to evolve and mature from a fun and loose side project into a full-fledged, ambitious Americana band. That evolution takes a giant leap on Smoke Ring Halo, with the addition of percussionist Tyler Greenwell (Tedeschi/Trucks Band, Zac Brown Band,) as a full time member, and veteran engineer Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Wilco) behind the glass pushing the record button.
There’s a profound and inherent musical chemistry amongst the three musicians here, heard in the yearning, high-lonesome harmony between Chris (Medeski, Martin & Wood) and Oliver Wood(King Johnson), and the cadent yet rhythmic percussion of Greenwell. That harmony is found in songs such as the one-sided, love-sick ode “Mary Anna,” which finds a lover begging for another to turn on her love light, and the gospel tinged “Made It Up The Mountain,” the latter featuring spirited organ swells of guest John Medeski.
The first single “Shoofly Pie” is a cleverly disguised lascivious and frisky blues rocker:
“well i must be blessed cause i had the best
and i’ve seen the light comin through your dress
and all my friends they understand why
i would kick and cry and i wouldn’t mind dyin’
for just another piece of that heavenly beautiful
shoofly pie/ shoofly pie/ shoofly pie.”
It is the most rocking cut here, with squalling, blazing slide guitar and thumping rhythm. The same snarky, salaciousness remains on the more clunky blues of “Stumbled In.””
And the brothers can also write some sweet, sultry ballads that pull at the heartstrings. Like the aforementioned “Mary Anna,” the sinuous “Pay Attention” longingly begs for a lover’s attention. Chris adds tempered and weepy harmonica. And the aching title track is a sad but sweet ode to a horn player and bluesman, which while written before his passing, will certainly have Springsteen fans remembering the Big Man, Clarence Clemmons;
“we’re all gonna miss you playin your horn
and showin us your busted heart
you blow so hard your lips are torn
and that’s the way
you got a smoke ring halo
just won’t blow away.”
And while speaking of the Boss, “The Shore” is a somber yet beautifully tender and elegiac ballad that evokes the spiritual, life-reaffirming powers of water, and one could easily imagine Springsteen recording it just as is, plaintive and mellow harmonica and all. It’s one of two fine songs sung by Chris Wood. “Rainbows,” the other, is a lovely, and happy love ballad, with sweet electric harp and pedal steel flourishes. Closer, “Blue and Green” reflects on lost family members and youthful innocence, a somber yet pleasant tune with gentle horn accompaniments.
Chris and Oliver Wood spent nearly 15 years making music on their own respective career paths. Smoke Ring Halo brings the brother back full circle to the folk and roots music they herd their father play around family campfires and family gatherings, and it sounds like they’ve been playing together all along.