Concerts usually aren’t described as bittersweet. They’re either incredible or bleh…most of the time the former. The Wooks’ Saturday, March 2nd, performance at the Burl was bittersweet – bittersweet and incredible.
Seeing a show at the Burl is always fantastic. Kentucky’s fueling a musical Renaissance right now, and the Burl has become its Sistine Chapel. Of course, in Kentucky, our chapel resembles a bad ass old barn renovated into a music venue. It was actually built in 1926 as a loading hub for Texaco in Lexington’s industrial district. Now, it’s a place where the greatest artists from our region (and all over the nation) have put their art on display. The Burl is Kentucky to the core…where the smell of wood smoke from the firepit outside fills the air along with laughter and music…a place where strangers become friends over glasses of warm Kentucky bourbon. Even though the Burl has only been around a few years, it’s become the heartbeat for Kentucky’s revitalized music scene, which made it the perfect place to say goodbye to Arthur from the Wooks. The one-time banjo (and later guitar player) chose to step away from the band in order to focus on other interests, as well as concentrating on recovering from a hand injury that has left him unable to play the banjo and guitar to his full ability. Arthur left a heartfelt goodbye on the group’s Facebook page:
“Playing for the Wooks has been one of the greatest joys of my entire life. Making music was one thing, but the relationships I developed with members of the band, and most importantly the fans, made it a very special time for me.
Stepping away from playing music is bittersweet. Ever since I lost the ability to play banjo things haven’t been the same for me. Whereas playing music was life’s greatest gift to me, losing the ability to do what I love has been one of my life’s great tragedies.
I will continue to pursue healing options for my hand, but most importantly I will continue to support the band in any way I can. I look forward to watching their continued success. I was lucky enough to be along for the ride as CJ, Roddy, Harry, Aaron, Galen, and Jesse put so much into making great music. I’ve also been very grateful to the banjo players that have supported and played with the band.”
With this heavy news hanging in the air, it brought an unusual ambience to the entire evening. On one hand, it was especially cool because I got to show with my first cousin, who I’d never got to see a show with. But being Arthur’s last show, it also made me notice even the most minute details, trying to appreciate as best I could how bittersweet an evening it must be for Arthur and his bandmates. As we strolled up the sidewalk to the Burl, the familiar smell of woodsmoke filled the air. We walked into a jampacked venue filled with the familiar faces of friends who support Kentucky’s music scene, all there to send off our friend Arthur the best way to knew how…by stomping, hollering, and raising cane.
The first time (and only other time, I believe) that I saw the Wooks prior to this was actually watching their rocking alter ego, The ‘Letric Wooks, at Kickin’ It On the Creek this past year. It was somewhere around 1:30 AM, and Tyler Childers had just scorched the earth and left an army of stark-ravin’ hilljacks with their collective rears kicked. Most people retired to their tents, exhausted by a full day of celebrating life in various manners and to various degrees. However, many soldiered through the exhaustion to witness one of the most incredible live shows I’ve ever seen. Hunkered down in my lawn chair, I got to watch the band pour everything they had into their set, with Arthur bouncing all over the stage and the guitars echoing through the hollers of Wolfpen Branch. I couldn’t imagine Kickin’ It ending any other way.
The Wooks play bluegrass with a tenacious, reckless abandon. They put just a touch of the jam-band element into an otherwise hard-driving, traditional sound. Each member of the band brings something special to the table and together they operate like a well-oiled machine. Roddy lays down a steady beat on the upright bass and creates the foundation for the entire sound, as well as doing an incredible job handling secondary (and sometimes primary) vocal duties. George has filled in admirably on the banjo for Arthur, and his playing style pairs perfectly with the Wooks sound. Watching him play is a show unto itself. Harry plays the mandolin with a ferocity that is unmatched in the bluegrass world. He’s energetic and totally immersed in every note when playing live. CJ is the consummate professional, and watching him help lead and orchestrate the performance is beyond impressive.
At one point in the show, CJ decided to bring in a drummer to add some extra percussion to the set. While drumming isn’t commonplace in bluegrass, the Wooks aren’t common. It beefed up the sound and added even more energy to an already energetic show.
The Wooks also had a very special guest this particular evening to help commemorate the event, with Professor Jesse Wells (of Tyler Childers band) helping out on the fiddle. With Tyler touring solo in New Zealand with John Prine, Jesse joined the group on stage, and man alive did he bring the smoke. Most folks don’t know that Jesse was a member of the band for a while until he joined Tyler Childers a year or so ago. Having him there made the evening that much more special. Several times, he would tear into a fiddle solo with the rest of the band turned towards him, and you could tell he was giving every ounce of talent he had to send Arthur off proper.
Then there’s Arthur; the man was born to entertain and make music. His energy on stage is infectious, and he knows how to lead a band. He’s witty, funny, and really knows how to interact with the crowd. You always remember certain lead singers who always seem to hold the crowd in the palm of their hand. As a lover of all kinds of music, I’ve seen a lot of enigmatic front men over the years. Phil Anselmo from Pantera, John Joseph from Cro Mags, Ralph Stanley, Ozzy Osborne, Arthur has that same gift, and he left everything on the stage that evening.
The Wooks tore through an incredible two-part set, which is even more impressive considering they played a matinee set earlier that night due to the insane ticket demand. Favorites like “County Girl”, “White Lines and Neon Signs”, “Little Sandy Queen”, a cover of Robert Earle Keene’s “Tom Ames Prayer” (and many more) were featured, but the two that stood out most to me were “Surface” and “Wookie Foot Shuffle”. In the former, the song built up into this amazing jam-band crescendo that had the crowd going nuts. With the latter, the energy was full-bore the entire time and flooded through the entire venue. When Arthur made his way over to the banjo and played the last part before the vocals, it felt like everyone in the room was in awe. That singular moment encapsulated everything Arthur is as a musician, playing through pain, giving it 100% and understanding the gravity of the moment.
In fact, I’d venture to guess that everyone in the venue felt the weight of that moment…it was completely surreal. It was heartfelt gesture to go out the only way Arthur knew how to…full throttle.
We unfortunately had to leave a little early, as my cousin works the night shift at a factory in Middlesboro and had to go to work right after the show (he’s a trooper). On the ride home, I couldn’t help but wonder what the band will look and sound like going forward without their charismatic front man, because Arthur is such a larger than life presence onstage. Every member of the Wooks is a master of their craft, and I have no doubt that they will continue on as a magnificent live act for years to come. More than anything, I hope Arthur can find a way to physically heal up so that one day he can rejoin the band he helped catapult to the top of the bluegrass world. Hopefully it’s not goodbye, just see you in a bit.
Best wishes to Arthur and the entire band, and thanks for one of the best concerts I’ve seen in a long, long time.
For more information on the Wooks, check out the website at www.wookoutamerica.com
Guest contributor, Jon Grace, currently serves as Tourism Director with the Bell County Tourism in Kentucky. Jon helps organize the Middlesboro Levitt AMP concert series, providing musical entertainment across multiple genres. In his free time, he enjoys attending concerts with his wife, as well as entertain others with his Audio Outlaws broadcast every Monday from 8-10pm on WRIL. The broadcast features outlaw and classic country, Americana, bluegrass, southern rock and and blues. Jon has contributed several stories to Kentucky Country Music to help highlight the best festivals, concerts, albums, and adventures from here in Kentucky.