By Christian Schaeffer
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Outside, it's a raw, freezing December morning in St. Louis. But Tom Wood sits surrounded by jungle ferns in the 80-degree heat of the Climatron at the Missouri Botanical Garden and patiently recites the details of his next appearance. In the near distance, mosquitoes buzz and water falls.
It's a fitting setting for a conversation with Wood, who has the relaxed manner of a grown-up hippie. He's clearly comfortable talking in direct, personal language about his songs and his career, and why not? The last few years have been good ones for Wood. His 1997 CD Serve Yourself and Save attracted high praise in the local press for its eclectic and perceptive songs. He won Slammy Awards in 1997 and 1998 for Best Solo Artist and has built a reputation as a compelling live performer, both solo and with the Extra Large Band.
Now comes his second CD, titled (but of course) 2. It starts with a single snare-drum hit, heavy with dub-style delay, followed rapidly by "Because of You," a catchy piece of Caribbean-flavored pop. Amid ringing marimbas and honking Jamaican horns, Wood sings a simple, plaintive melody in a voice that here resembles a cross between John Wesley Harding and Richie Havens.
It's certainly not what many people would expect from Wood, whose reputation lies primarily in that region wherein modern folk, alt-country and the singer/songwriter tradition overlap. It seems perverse of him to lead off his new CD with a pop-calypso tune, but Wood's eagerness to explore and stretch has been the foundation of his 25-year career.
A St. Louis native, Wood grew up listening to his father play Duke Ellington and Count Basie songs on the family piano and knew he wanted to be part of "the whole audience/performer thing." When the British rock of the 1960s hit American shores, young Wood was rapt: "Seeing the Beatles on television, that was a big one. And the Rolling Stones, and the Byrds. I mean, that was huge." From Basie to the Byrds before he was even out of middle school -- sounds like a born musician.
By the 10th grade, Wood was already playing drums and guitar and writing his own acid-rock originals in a succession of local bands. Further developments led Wood, while in college, to the Homegrown Harvest Band and his first taste of regional success. In those days of Eagles and Flying Burrito Brothers, the polished country-rock sound of the Homegrown Harvest Band found a fertile audience here in Missouri. After several years in St. Louis, the band relocated in 1979 to Springfield, Mo., only to break up in 1980.
"I moved back to St. Louis and started up a reggae band," he says. "I loved the rhythmic aspect of it, and I wanted to find something that had a little bit more truth." Both the sonic elements and the social perspective of reggae remain in Tom Wood's work today, as evident as his head of short dreadlocks. The directness and humanity of reggae's politics ("It's just about truth," he says) clearly struck a chord in Wood, also a huge fan of such politically relevant songwriters as Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn.
After stints in a few different bands, Wood had settled into a solo identity by the early 1990s. Old friend Lou Whitney (of Springfield legends the Skeletons and the Morells) saw Wood perform in 1995 and insisted on recording him; their sessions together evolved into Serve Yourself and Save. "Also during that time," Wood says, "I was invited by the band Poi Dog Pondering to go to Chicago and work in a studio they did some tracking in." Dave Max Crawford of that band added accordion and melodica parts to the album.
2's five songs ("Five songs, no filler," as the optimistic Wood puts it) are as musically varied as Wood's career has been, but they all share a warm and humane personality. The tropical flavor of "Because of You" is followed by "We're Here." This acoustic-guitar-based song uses the lyrical detail and straightforward melody of the folk-ballad tradition to tell the tale of the life of Wood's father. "That was written for my dad," he says. "His story is an amazing one, even though he's just an average guy. To live 90 years and see the things he's seen, I mean ... I'm humbled." He's the kind of person that, you know, you can tell he lived through World War II. They didn't know if the Depression was gonna be over -- ever! -- and they didn't know if Hitler was gonna be showing up in New York City." With a few apt phrases and some deft vocal inflections, Wood convincingly conjures European battlefields and African-American church choirs.
Such epic matters are not the concern of "Best Girlfriend," a lonesome country lament about "the best girlfriend I never had." Wood's vocals and songwriting are at their most honest and expressive here. Wrap it all in a warm, spacious country arrangement, and you've got the album's best song.
"I was involved with someone who I really fell for," Wood says, "and she wasn't really looking at the relationship in the same way as me. I came away from it thinking, "You know, God, for a minute there I thought she was my girlfriend.' I didn't write it to be bitter but to teach myself a lesson."
The disc closes with the first song recorded for it. Touring New England in 1998, Wood put 3,000 miles on a rental car in two weeks. "I was sitting in my room one night, and I just started writing about the road and all these miles I was racking up," he says. "You're there on the road, alone, and that's how the song "The Road, the Hungry and the Wild' begins. That was the first song I wrote on this collection.
"I knew that I didn't want it to be a folk song; I didn't want it to be a rock song or a country song. I thought, we gotta make this one a little more open, more of a listening experience than the first album, which was just "Here's Tom and his guitar.'"
Although it may run a little long at more than eight minutes, "The Road, the Hungry and the Wild" does build an impressively dense sonic atmosphere, thick with the "mystery" Wood was hoping to achieve. "I just had this trumpet thing in my head, this muted trumpet that's just smoky and dark," he Wood. Vocalist Rebecca Ryan adds a nonverbal backing part. "It's not so much a harmony vocal as a voice that's part of the music, mysterious because the road is mysterious."
2 bears the mark of a seasoned veteran fully at ease in what he's doing. The careful songwriting, the imaginative production, the willingness to stretch to reach lofty goals -- Wood has clearly learned a thing or two in his day. Foremost of those lessons seems to be: Work your ass off. Wood recently launched Mongo Mon Productions as his own promotional agency and can be found in his office late into most nights.
An extravaganza at Off Broadway on Friday, Jan. 5, will feature Wood with the Extra Large Band, a rotating crew of friends. "It could be anywhere from six people to a dozen people on the stage at one time," he says. "I'm really looking forward to the upcoming show because Off Broadway is going to lend itself to a really interesting evening.
"There will be lots to listen to and lots to observe. We're gonna have some projections happening, some loops happening. We're billing it as a unique concert experience. Come with an open mind."