Granted, the first thing to comment about in a review of a live album usually is not the audience. Live at the Barn from The Wood Brothers requires an exception. Here’s why: In such an intimate and nostalgic place as the performing space of the late Levon Helm, an audience that acts accordingly, respecting the circumstance and resulting rippling, roots-rock repertoire, is essential. Thankfully, this one does.
Quiet, and alternatively, loud in the just right spots- much like the band, themselves- the crowd’s decorum allows for the music to be unchallenged and direct in its execution; a fabulously charged-up show from this tremendously talented, acoustic-electric trio. Oliver Wood’s guitar veering up against punky blues dissonance, his voice, like the knotty grain of his surname, extending, sometimes breaking in beautiful shades of storytelling. Bassist Chris Wood’s spectral bow solo, spooky like an old-time, creature double-feature matinee, left to fill the air chillingly, without the self-aggrandizing hoots and hollers of a lesser gathering. The multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix’s percussion, laying down the thump and laying out for the more mood-enhancing moments. It’s as unblemished and undisturbed by the extraneous as any live record could, and should be.
The three do encourage the folks to participate, on a rowdy sing-along section of “I Got Loaded,” and it’s suitably great. But, the real joy is how up-close and personal the record sounds, particularly on the lovely little fingerpicking ramble of “Postcards from Hell,” dedicated to Helm. Whether on the funky uproar of “Who the Devil,” or the crashing harmonies of “Wastin’ My Mind,” there are even distinct pauses between the song’s conclusion and audience reaction, taking in every note, and making sure the Brothers are completely finished before they let loose their appreciation.
Oliver makes several pointed remarks about the special significance of playing Helm’s barn, closing the nine-song run that begs for more in the proper spirit with The Band’s “Ophelia.” So lucky it is when a band delivers such a meaningful and invested live performance on tape. Luckier still, when an audience plays its part so well, letting us all feel like we were there, too.