After “Pushing Onlys,” the band played “Suffering Season” and “Blood Dries Darker,” two standouts from 2010’s At Echo Lake. The opening trio of “hits” (insofar as an indie band that makes bedroom recordings can actually have “hits”) showcased many of Woods’s greatest strengths —- the perfectly constructed, infectious melodies, the breezy, backwoods vibe, the meandering guitar solos, and the campfire intimacy of the songs were all put on put on display, helping the band quickly win over those in attendance. The crowd at the Grey Eagle was falling for Woods.
Then the set took a turn, and not necessarily for the better. “Blood Dries Darker” was followed by one of a few long, drawn-out, somewhat monotonous jams that seemed to build to nothing in particular. After ten minutes plus of guitar noodling and howling tape hiss ambience, the crowd had thinned substantially. There were, as always, the fanatic fans near the stage who would’ve been happy with whatever the band had played, but in general, the audience seemed a bit restless. Many of these more casual fans took the jam session as an opportune time to refill their glasses or have a quick smoke.
The highlight of the evening came in the middle of the set in the form of two quiet, introspective tunes from Sun and Shade, “Be All Be Easy” and “Say Goodbye.” Both songs featured minimal instrumentation apart from singer-guitarist Jeremy Neal’s soft acoustic strumming, allowing his fragile, Neil Young-esque vocals to take center stage. Certainly Woods makes innovative, thought-provoking music, but their more conventional songs (that is, their non-instrumental songs) are usually carried by Neal’s strange, high-pitched, near-whispered vocals. The Grey Eagle fell silent, the audience hanging on his every word.
Once again, though, the band was not content to merely play a shuffled mix of their album material, as they followed these songs with another improvised detour. While the band seemed to be enjoying themselves, there seemed to be no end to the song. When it did end, it didn’t end climactically, but rather just sort of fizzled away. Then Neal quickly said, “Thanks,” into the microphone as the band scattered from the stage without ceremony. It seemed a puzzling way to end what was a powerful, albeit frustrating at times, set. Luckily, those in attendance were vocal enough that an encore was sure to come.
Thankfully, the band spared the crowd the typical “Are they going to come back out or not?” suspense and were back on stage after only a few moments. Those that stuck around were rewarded with “To Clean,” the opening track of 2009’s Songs of Shame, and a wonderfully ramshackle, pared-down interpretation of Graham Nash’s timeless “Military Madness,” also from Songs of Shame. Suffice it to say, this ending was far more satisfying than the ending to their main set.
All in all, Woods put on a fun, memorable show. Too often, bands are content to limit their live shows to mere rehashes of album material, and this is a shame. While the long, improvised excursions were not for everyone in attendance (and probably could have been shortened significantly while still achieving the same effect), Woods’s unapologetic tendency towards experimentation is part of what makes them such an appealing act in the first place. The next time they come to Asheville, I’ll be waiting in line to see them again.