The band Woods, mid-way through their fall tour in support of their latest record, stopped off for a show at Barboza on Capitol Hill in Seattle. PR around the new release, “Bend Beyond,” labels Woods as a “lo-fi” band, a term that allows for a wide interpretation, not all of it flattering. I don’t really like labels but I get why PR firms use them. To my mind, “lo-fi” generally implies a less-than-professional studio sound, intentional but raw sound in the DIY mindset. When you do even a little research into Woods, however, you immediately see that Jeremy Earl not only does amazing things with his band, but he also runs the astonishing and influential Woodsist record label out of Brooklyn, releasing his own records and those of many other bands as well. These guys are focused and extremely hard working and entirely professional. A cautionary note for young bands more in love with the idea of being a band than actually being a band, and taking on all the hard grind that music demands today. I can’t hear DIY on “Bend Beyond.” I don’t have the right ears. (For that matter, neither could I hear it on their 2011 release, “Sun and Shade,” also worthwhile to track down. The song “Out of the Eye” on that record is hypnotic.) Never having seen Woods before this recent show, I almost expected something quiet and folky. The evening at Barboza proved to be anything but quiet.
I planned to go to Barboza thinking I’d just be writing a few impressions of the live Woods, a band I liked but hadn’t really committed to, if you know what I mean. I did some research and asked for an interview with the band, to see if I could get past labels like “lo-fi” and “folk-pop,” which seem to get attached to them (and to ask them their favorite color). But the band declined, which is a shame, because after listening to their new record (and especially after seeing their live show, which I’ll say more about in a minute), I now think this is one of the most important and hardest working Indie bands in the business today. I would’ve enjoyed talking with them about how they got to this point in their career, and if things were opening up for them.
First, this “lo-fi” “folk-pop” sound. “Bend Beyond” is rich and layered, stylish and well- crafted. The lyrics are smart and insightful. Why not call it a fine studio release? Because it is. The opening track, “Bend Beyond,” spirals into a kind of signature style, almost an extended jam. This certainly was a common theme in the live show, which was also thunderingly loud, passionate, and inspired. The one track that seems to be getting the most attention, “Cali in a Cup,” is my least favorite because, I suppose, it seems like just another opening track for a sitcom filmed in Portland or something, about slacker musicians and coffeehouses. “Back to the Stone,” “Lily,” and “Impossible Sky” are all equally important and memorable. There’s also this interesting thing with this record, that most of the songs are very short, eight being under three minutes long, and yet in memory the songs seem bigger. As melody craftsmen, these guys create memorable compositions that live in very small spaces. The album is quiet and introspective, yes, but there are moments of big sound. The band is known for live shows that are extroverted, energized, and intense.
So, the live Woods. The night of the gig I wasn’t in the best mood for driving into Seattle. A major rain- and windstorm landed, which is usual for the Pacific Northwest, and Capitol Hill was swamped with heavy rain, traffic, and frustrated people everywhere looking for free parking so they could get out of their cars and on with their evening out. I got to the venue and there was no press list for reviewers (and practically no patrons at the bar). The Barboza people were really nice, though, and after a little conversation, the door guy let me in believing my story that I was there to do something more than drink. The opening band, Night Beats, turned the dark space into a storm of sound, crashing around the stage in dim stage lighting (the lead singer actually asked for the house lights to be dimmed even more) with what seemed like loud Seattle garage/post-punk rage. The drum and the bass thundered over everything and made the vocals almost impossible to hear. My will to stay for the full set, let alone hang around until Woods set up, was flagging. I started to think about my drive home in the rain and wind. Hey, we’ve all been there, right? It’s tough to be an opening act anywhere. To be fair, the Night Beats brought a lot of energy and passion to their set. I just felt like the venue’s sound wasn’t up to their needs, obscuring what might, on a better night in a better setting, might have been an interesting counterpoint to Woods. I found myself checking my watch more than usual.
After a short equipment change, Woods launched into their set (with better lighting). I was hoping Woods would manage their sound a little better, and they did. A few glitches caused by a distracted tech, slowed things down while the tech adjusted his controls, but the sound matched the band’s requirements. Woods took over the space and delivered waves of huge sound, with Jeremy Earl’s vocals shining through. Nothing “lo-fi” live. This band creates a state of hypnotic sonic thunder that rolls around the room in distinct layers and waves, working in their own space and in their own time. The sound could easily have collapsed into just a loud roar, but it didn’t. They read each other perfectly, launching into song after song, some drifting far out into spaces all their own, then returning to whip it all right back into shape. At one point it felt to me as if we in the audience weren’t something the band even registered as being present in the room, or even necessary. They just played for themselves. Real artists in their moment, so into their moment in fact that 45 minutes on stage vanished in a flash.
Driving home in the storm, which continued without much change, I wished I could have talked to the band about what I saw. It was something special to behold. This is a hard-working band with a new album that should be taken seriously. As I thought about the set I had just seen, I kept thinking about how cool it was to get to see a band of this stature and skill in a small bar like Barboza, on a stormy fall night in Seattle, and how it’s good thing I never give up, even when the parking situation is a bitch.