Woods at the Preservation Jazz Hall West at the Chapel, San Francisco
Last week, Woods had the honor of being among the first bands to play San Francisco’s newest venue: The West Coast outpost of New Orleans’ legendary Preservation Jazz Hall. “The Chapel” is a well-named sister venue; the pitched ceilings and worn red walls obviously recall a place of prayer, and the building, at 19th and Valencia Street, was indeed a church and mortuary back around the start of World War 1. The Chapel has an accompanying bar that serves Cajun bites and booze and the venue itself has a great balcony that offers primo viewing for non-VIPs. A 500-person capacity room with 40 foot ceilings and a big, organic sound, the Chapel reminds me of the Independent (my favorite venue), but with a preserved, less contemporary feel. With artists like Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, and the Lumineers playing here in the few weeks since the space opened (with upcoming shows by Here We Go Magic, La Sera, and the Joy Formidable) the Chapel will surely become a burgeoning San Francisco locale in the coming months as the booking picks up.
Anyway, Woods! The Brooklyn band sold out the venue, and good for them. I’m not sure if people were lured out to check out San Francisco’s new digs and then bailed once they got a taste, or if Woods simply started too late for people’s liking on a weeknight, but halfway through their set the room was halfway empty. Fools I say, because the show was incredibly satisfying and the band sounded fantastic. (Though I know the appeal of heading home early on a school night.) When I’ve been asked to describe Woods, I find myself saying that they’re a “lo-fi psychedelic folk band”, which sounds like an annoying canned response, but that’s the most apt, succinct way I find to describe them: “Lo-fi” because they notably record off-the-cuff; “psychedelic” because they improv and jam like hell; and “folk” because theirs are derivatively folk songs, built on an acoustic base of melodies. But they are more than that, having evolved into a genre-defying outfit, with sunny pop and Brooklyn couth and fuzzy noise and ramshackle indie rock all playing a role in their sound, all those pieces displayed in varying degrees throughout their already prolific discography. (Seven releases since 2007.)
The warm falsetto—delivered by Woods’ main man Jeremy Earl—is their distinctive signifying feature, and their honeyed, contemplative melodies round the edges of the all-out jams many of their songs evolve into (or devolve, depending on your tolerance for jams.) Because these guys do jam. They go out there. I found myself propped against the wall, driven to a happy stupor by their noisy, hypnotic wailing, and when I found myself getting a bit too zoned, they’d be off to another track, drawing me back to coherence with the opening notes of a homey little folk tune.
Woods are the flagship group of the Woodsist collective (Earl actually runs the label), and the reach and reputation of that roster is just another indication that Woods helped to fuel a new movement and sound. There are noisy jam lovers out there who also love cerebral folk songs, and Woods has tapped into exactly how that hybrid makes us tick. Even if they weren’t playing in a historical relic of San Fran history that endears itself to the wayward musical soul of the Big Easy, Woods could still transcend a mere concert hall’s limitations. They have a way of transporting the listener, taking him or her to a place of both reflection and searching splendor, somehow simultaneously. For a band that’s drawn on so many forebears for inspiration, this Brooklyn foursome has still managed, despite the odds, to carve out a sound that’s truly all their own.