I walked into the upper level of Gabe’s and was disappointed to see that Woods hadn’t gained any popularity since they played the Mill a few years back on tour for Bend Beyond. I had enjoyed that show, and was happy to hear they were playing Iowa City again — especially given the critical praise deservedly lavished on their most recent album, City Sun Eater in the River of Light, which marks their transition away from a low-fi aesthetic.
The band played well, with Jeremy Earl’s falsetto contrasting perfectly with the guitars, keyboards and drums. That contrast seems key to the band’s success, creating a space of warmth that fits comfortably between Fruit Bats and Built to Spill: While Eric D. Johnson’s voice floats over his band’s instrumentation in ways that evoke sitting in a meadow on a sunny day, enjoying a breeze, and Built to Spill’s Doug Marsch sings through an incredibly precise arrangement of guitars, Woods provides a heavy backdrop that the vocals enter into. There’s a heaviness to the drums and bass, especially live, that make it far weightier than Fruit Bats, but a looseness to the music that allows a far more relaxed experience than Built to Spill. The instrumental breaks between vocals shimmer with a quiet, potent heat that allows the vocal return to descend in a reassuring croon. The band played with a sense of gentle coherence, refusing to overpower or overwhelm the audience — we, instead, were invited to share in the space the band created. The keyboardist, at one point, made this invitation explicit, offering the stage as a dancing place. The handful of dancers in front of the stage preferred to remain where they were.
The songs — written in minor keys, accompanied by the sad sound of a solo saxophone — retained their sense of warmth. It simply filtered things, as though a cloud — or, better, a haze — to settle over the sounds they created. The new album, which took up the majority of this night’s performance, features reappropriations of a handful of genres that Woods makes their own. Traces of reggae, blues, rock, and folk can be heard surfacing and disappearing as Woods appropriates — owns — each of these musical traditions, and crafts them into their own aesthetic. At their best, it feels as though the band provides an experience of West coast surf rock viewed through an East coast sensibility.
As they performed, the band became tighter and the songs more sprawling, instrumental sessions taking more time, vocals less. These were the most beautiful moments, the band and audience both becoming lost in the tapestry of sounds and silences punctuating chord shifts. The band evoked a sense of warmth, of triumph, that was at odds with the dark rain outdoors but all the more beautiful for it. The audience left satisfied, as though they had enjoyed an excellent meal, contented smiles lingering as the house lights came up. The set was only 90 minutes long, and although I gladly would have heard more I also did not feel deprived. I felt at peace, satisfied, as some of the warm joy the band created stayed with me as I left Gabe’s to return home.