Jimmy Ryan performs during last night’s Wooden Leg show at the Fallout Shelter in Norwood.
In an astonishing display of musicianship last night at the Fallout Shelter, Wooden Leg, with nothing more than the sound check as a rehearsal for the five players, somehow contained its whirring jam-band energy with a tightness that defied that reality. The Jimmy Ryan-led band has played very sporadically since releasing its first album in 1996, but as the post-performance interview revealed, they were largely winging it last night.
“I think we had one rehearsal at JamSpot back in 1995,” Ryan said with a laugh. “Other than that, the soundcheck tonight was about it.”
That was only slight exaggeration. Wooden Leg had a surprise reappearance at a holiday party for bassist Brian Dunton’s investment company in December. That gig also produced a surprise record that was similarly unexpected and yet inexplicably tight. The sound technician at the private event surreptitiously recorded the set, and when Dunton learned of it and heard it, he knew they had the goods for a live album, and a comeback. The album, “Turn Back The World,” was incidentally released just hours before the Fallout Shelter show (with remixing by Dave Westner of Woolly Mammoth Studios).
Bill Hurley, the mastermind of the Extended Play Sessions at the Fallout Shelter, paid the band the ultimate compliment in the post-performance interview session. “We have had hundreds of bands on this stage but I don’t think we’ve had any more formidable band than these guys,” he said. “ I mean, I’m talking the Bottle Rockets and everything. Just outstanding.”
Ryan, the mandolin master and prolific songwriter who wrote or co-wrote all but one of the songs on the new album, said the cohesiveness is easily explained. “We don’t really converse that much when we hang out,” Ryan said of the band. “We talk with our instruments.”
And, boy, it was with great fluency last night.
For this show, the core four — Ryan, Dunton, fiddler Joe Kessler, and drummer Mickey Bones — were joined by Russell Chudnofsky, one of Wooden Leg’s top guns in its rotation of guitarists. While Duke Levine plays the guitar on the live album, Chudnofsky provided some otherworldly lead last night, coaxing a wide array of sounds out of his guitar, using a slide to lend a steel feel to the more countrified songs. Chudnofsky also lent something else last night. … In mid-song Ryan leaned over, whispered in Chud’s ear and asked to borrow his glass slide. Ryan played an ear-opening slide mandolin solo, and then handed it back to Chudnofsky.
That typified the impromptu genius of the performance. With Dunton and Bone providing riveting rhythm, the other three players traded solos in effortless fashion, with a nod from Ryan often serving as the only cue. The music was nevertheless so tight that Wooden Leg was one of the very few bands that did not take advantage of the Extended Play Sessions policy that allows a band to ask for a do-over and record a second take of any song it so desires.
Kessler, a dynamo with his trademark blue fiddle, seems to be gleefully shouting his backing vocals, and twirls all over the stage — and off it last night. He kept the Fallout Shelter camera crew hopping as he ran through the capacity crowd, stopping to serenade listeners at their tables.
Chudnofsky is a pure joy to hear and, while he has appeared at the Fallout Shelter in backing other artists, this was a different platform, providing him the ability to use his full arsenal. He is made for this kind of free exchange and creative dialogue.
As for Jimmy Ryan, he is also a man of a hundred styles — and nearly as many bands. He is now actively involved in at least three bands, Wooden Leg, his long-running quintet Hayride, and The Nocturnal Adoration Society, a duo with his wife Donna Sartanowicz. They have co-written a slew of strong songs since forming the duo, including the title track of the Wooden Leg live album.
Wooden Leg — so named in honor of Ryan’s father, who had a wooden leg as a result of losing a limb in World War II — included just one cover on that album, Lead Belly’s “Relax Your Mind,” and last night that was the only non-original performed.
Here’s hoping that the Wooden Leg resurgence continues. The quintet already has at least one prominent gig in the books. Hurley promised to bring them back in the fall. That should satisfy the listeners who were still shrieking for more encores even after the players completed theirs last night.