By Gina Tron
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By Bree Davies
Touring with the Godfather of Soul can get a little heady. One minute you're at the Apollo in New York, and the next you're performing in such far-flung locales as Turkey, Greece or the Caribbean. Yet for Damon Wood, who plays guitar in James Brown's band and fronts his own outfit, Harmonious Junk, a stage is a stage, no matter where the bus is parked.
"I like to have fun when I'm playing," Wood says emphatically while pacing around his Congress Park apartment. "That's really what it's all about."
And he does have fun -- usually. Not every show is a love-fest, Wood says. He tells of gorgeous theaters at which he and the JB gang are treated royally with choice food and luxury accommodations. But when the band plays, it's to a relatively staid audience that is required to remain seated. Fortunately, these stodgy outings are offset by peppier crowds at more relaxed venues.
"We'll play other shows where the perks aren't so good but the crowds are great. Personally, I'd rather eat a shoddy meal and change in a cramped space to play for an amped audience."
But back in the suburbs of Las Vegas, long before Wood was backing the hardest-working man in show business, his patrons consisted mainly of Weedwackers and the occasional mouse. "It was basically a garage thing that never left the garage," he says of his first musical vehicle. And while his next project was more of a hot rod, it still wasn't all that road-ready.
"We were inspired by bands like Yes and Rush, maybe a little Zappa. We wrote songs that were so involved, we couldn't even play 'em," Wood recalls with a laugh. "We all knew a little bit about theory, but mainly, we'd just write these weird, complex parts just because we thought that it was cool."
After a while, prog rock lost its luster. Determined to find a band that was going places, Wood and a drummer friend posted ads in some local rags. One of the people who responded was Jimmie Van Zant, the first cousin of Lynyrd Skynyrd's late vocalist, Ronnie Van Zant. After some initial tinkering and a little rehearsal with the group, Wood finally hit the road.
"We played Skynyrd covers and had about a dozen original blues and Southern-rock tunes," Wood remembers. "We played thirty states, traveling in a motor home with a trailer attached. We went through four of those. One of them actually burned up. The engine had flames coming out of it when we pulled in to return it. We were workin' it pretty hard, but we made okay money, and there was a party every night. We were just trying to get to that next level."
After year four with Van Zant, the excitement wore thin for Wood, and by 1995, he was back living with his parents in Sin City. The time spent on the road made for some good war stories and minor-league bragging rights, but ultimately, he was at a career crossroads. He spent his days working as a delivery driver, and to keep his chops up, he spent his nights working on a dock -- so to speak.
"I was backing a few different singers in the evenings, and Las Vegas being Las Vegas, they mostly wanted to cover time-tested stuff like 'Sittin on the Dock of the Bay' and classics like that," says Wood. "Vegas is a show-business town, so lots of people go there. But the music scene is a little more confining."
His after-hours efforts in Vegas eventually led him to a soul/rock outfit fronted by a female vocalist named Tomi Rae. One evening, a visiting James Brown happened to catch the act and was smitten by Rae (to whom he is now married). Brown also liked the sound of Rae's band and invited the outfit to play a pre-Grammy party at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles.
"We did a bunch of Janis Joplin covers at that gig," recalls Wood. "Tomi has a smoky voice that's really good for that kind of material. We also played 'I Feel Good' with James Brown sitting in." Mr. Dynamite enjoyed the performance so much, he asked the band to open a few shows for him. Those outings provided propitious exposure for Wood. Brown later called the young slinger and asked him to join his legendary outfit for a European tour. "I was getting ready to go to work one morning when I got the call. I was supposed to be with them for just part of a tour, but I'm still doing it five years later," he says, grinning.
Usually clad in a blue or red tuxedo while slashing for Brown, Wood seems more at home in his band, Harmonious Junk, as a batik-sporting soul cat with a beatnik-like frizzy goatee and longish hair tucked into a '70s-era leather cap that would make Huggy Bear proud. Wood first formed Junk in Las Vegas while he was between tours with Brown. He tapped a friend to play bass, found a drummer they both liked, and the initial incarnation of the group fell together. In September 2002, Wood moved to Denver, where he decided to re-create the band with Mario Di Bona on drums, Jack Alterman on bass and Chad Aman on keys.
The group recently holed up in the studio and is poised to release a disc of its diversely influenced material in early spring. Bouncing between psychedelia, funk, blues, jazz and reggae, its guitar-driven sound is tight, even when venturing on flights of improvisational fancy.
"We're trying to keep it sort of old-school," Wood says. "Just musicians. No DJs. No tracks. Just an organic setup that allows us to stretch out, but also something that's danceable and that's boogieable. We're looking to create that mix that entertains people but also entertains us. And we try to appeal to people of all ages, whether they're fifteen or fifty."
Wood says he enjoys playing for erudite listeners. He says he often receives positive feedback along with a few kernels of insight, whether he's laying down tunes by Billy Preston, Stevie Wonder or one of his own compositions."I love it when people know their stuff and have a broad knowledge of musical history," he enthuses. "That's the kind of crowd I like to play for." Between Soul Brother Number One and Harmonious Junk, Wood is well positioned to stay in front of the musically well informed, though he takes nothing for granted.
"The JB lineup has been stable for a while, but I'm the last person to have gotten in, so that keeps me on my toes," he says. "I like playing for Brown, but I take advantage of my off time to work on Harmonious Junk. It's nice to come home and get in my own band."