The members of long-running local instrumental rock quartet Woodenhead will cap off their 40th anniversary year this weekend by looking back. Way back.
All surviving former members of the band are slated to join the current roster, in various configurations, for an epic reunion at Chickie Wah Wah on Saturday. There is no opening act; starting at 9 p.m., they’ll play for around three hours, including an acoustic set. Along the way they’ll revive material from every era of the band, including deep cuts that haven’t been performed in decades.
“We haven’t touched some of these songs in 35 years,” says co-founding guitarist Jimmy Robinson. “We must be out of our minds. But the material has held up pretty well. We’ll see what the audience thinks.”
Robinson was a classical guitar student at Loyola University when he and cellist Danny Cassin founded Woodenhead in 1975. The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s ambitious fusion of rock, classical and jazz, with its odd meters, complex arrangements and high-flying improvisation, was their blueprint.
As one of the only bands of its kind in New Orleans, Woodenhead was the default opening act for local appearances of Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Dixie Dregs, Spyro Gyra, Bill Bruford, Billy Cobham, the John McLaughlin Trio, Steve Morse and the like.
For the past three decades, Woodenhead’s roster has remained constant with Robinson, keyboardist Fran Comiskey, bassist Paul Clement and drummer Mark Whitaker. But across the first decade, the line-up was more fluid; at various points, a violin and a singer were part of the mix.
Woodenhead alumni slated to take part in Saturday’s reunion include Cassin, who is now a cellist with the Baton Rouge Symphony, plus violinist Dennis Elliott, vocalist and pianist Angelle Trosclair, drummers Tommy Lachin and James “Animal” Comiskey and bassist Lenny Jenkins. They also will pay tribute to the late Edgar Lipps, Woodenhead’s original bassist.
“They’re great musicians, every one of them,” Robinson said.
They had to be, in order to master the relentlessly complex arrangements that have always been Woodenhead’s stock in trade. Assembling the set list for Saturday’s show required some detective work. Robinson sorted through piles of cassette recordings of early gigs and rehearsals, as well as a reel-to-reel recording of a long-ago band interview on WWNO-FM.
Once he found the songs, the band had to relearn them. “We’ve been woodshedding like crazy. But the material is so much fun to play, the rehearsals are really enjoyable — it’s not a chore. The music is so challenging that nobody gets bored.”
That said, “A lot of it was so complicated that I went back and slimmed it down,and cut some of the excess stuff out.“
They plan to revive at least one track from the band’s self-titled vinyl debut, released in the early 1980s via the New York jazz-fusion label Inner City Records. The “Woodenhead” album was recorded at Allen Toussaint’s SeaSaint Studio in Gentilly. Toussaint, a master of the three-minute pop song, didn’t quite know what to make of Woodenhead’s epic compositions.
“He was a real sweetheart,” Robinson recalled. “He’d say, ‘I could probably make about seven songs out of each one of these.’ Which is probably what we should have done — we’d be a lot further along. At one point, we’d put in everything but the kitchen sink.”
Unlike, say, Rush, whose 40th anniversary tour this year was something of a farewell, Woodenhead is still going strong. With the support of new management, Robinson, Comiskey, Clement and Whitaker intend to keep on challenging themselves and their audience indefinitely.
Meanwhile, the passage of time made this weekend’s reunion possible.
“Everybody’s gotten old enough to where their kids are grown and have moved out,” Robinson said. “So they were all available.”