Two times in my long history of listening to music have I been stopped in my tracks by a female background vocal: Pink Floyd's The Great Gig In the Sky (Clare Torry) and the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter (Merry Clayton). Okay, neither was really a background vocal, per se, but they did stop me in my tracks. This year, I heard track stopper number three: Danny Schmidt's Leaves Are Burning. The first track on Schmidt's much overlooked Little Grey Sheep album bludgeoned me with not only great music and exceptional, tasty electronic and electric guitar from Paul Curreri but the ear-shredding and amazingly sensitive voice of Joia Wood. As with the first two songs, I played this one again and again just to be sure what I was hearing. It took numerous listens to separate all of Wood's wails and moans from Curreri's very similar (at times) guitar. In the process, I fell in love with Wood's voice. Actually, I fell in love with what she can do with it, and she can do plenty.
When Schmidt told me about a CD she'd pressed last year of a live gig at Charlottesville VA's much vaunted (and rightly so) Gravity Lounge, I salivated. She'd only pressed it to have something for fans at shows, Schmidt explained, so it was possible that she had sold out. Emails to Schmidt and Wood over the course of a few months produced no tangible CD and I became a bit discouraged, but I am not one to give up easily. After wangling an interview and begging like a starving dog, she hinted that she might press a few more, that she was in fact considering an attempt to actually support herself with her music and that she would send a copy if and when they were ready. I waited. I got it. It was worth the wait.
Live From the Gravity Lounge is a bit rough, but a really good quality mixing board tape (if digital recordings are referred to as 'tapes' anymore). It is also one of the best live performances I have in my collection. Joia Wood is, in a word, a joy. Prophetess opens the set, acoustic guitar lo-fi beneath unadorned voice, a no-frills beginning and one which allows her to build. It is a flashback to the late 60s and early 70s folk scene only better. Shelter, a pleading and lonely cry, takes it a step further and sets up the beautiful and delicate Come So Far, a heartrending look at the desolation of alone.
Intermission? Maybe, because the rest of the album features Wood and band, Trees on Fire, and here we go. Go is as close as Wood gets to a signature song and she starts letting loose. Her light vibrato carries the unique melody to great heights and ends all too soon with fadeout (you can see a full-length live video version on her MySpace page, filmed in Poland, of all places). No sense in wasting the band, so they up the beat a bit with the folk-rocking "Hurricane Song", pushed along by folk/prog violin and guitar and shuffling percussion, the ending rounding out the song perfectly. Another great folk rocker follows—To Do—complete with psych guitar/violin break which amps it up a notch. She ends with Know Me Now, an absolutely stunning introspective ballad of the first water. It runs for a little over six minutes and is a true highlight. Then, for reasons known only to the musical gods, the CD goes dead from 6:03 to 9:12 only to be reawakened with a strange and short version of Three Blind Mice. The first 6:03 is brilliant. The rest—well, let us just say that she has already given us more great music than we deserve.
Okay. There is one more song of note. Sandwiched between To Do and Know Me Now is an anomaly well worth separating from the rest: Lullaby. It is more prog-folk than anything, Wood and Trees On Fire probably unknowingly borrowing from the likes of Van der Graaf Generator, harbingers of 70s progressive rock. The bridge two-thirds of the way through Lullaby capture the feel and aura of VDGG's early 70s Pawn Hearts LP. Rob Mezzanotte's David Jackson-style sax is spine-tingling and the electronically tinged guitar sound is amazing. I truly wish I'd been there. As good as it is on CD, it must have been even better live.
"Live From the Gravity Lounge" is live, yes, and there are the occasional warts and scars incumbent in such recordings, but in this case it is a huge positive. Joia Wood is not only talented but authentic. The studio might have taken that raw edge away from what to my ears stand solidly on its own. This is great stuff partially because it IS live.
That said, Wood has been in the studio working on her first full-fledged studio album, reportedly with Trees On Fire. It will be a real test, but she has the goods. Speaking of goods, life is good, and when the album is done and available, life will be even better.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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