Words by Catherine Dempsey | Photos by Kieve Colligan
I haven’t been able to get Will Wood out of my mind since seeing him and his band the Tapeworms play last year in Montclair, NJ. He’s one of the most interesting and magnetic entertainers in recent years. The band released their debut Everything is a Lot in May of 2015 and followed up with Self-ish in August last year. Without Will Wood, New Jersey would be missing its weirdness. There’s something to be said about the following an artist has, and he and The Tapeworms have fans that often arrive at shows covered in face paint, which could potentially match that of Will Wood himself. The general weirdos of Jersey and beyond seem to congregate in the vicinity of their shows, which always makes for an interesting cast of characters.
Before even stepping foot into the small studio space, drama was unfolding outside. A man with a microphone (who we later find out is comedian Chris Dunne), followed closely by a man with a very large camera, were running about through the line, asking anyone they could: Who is the real Will Wood? The answers were a bit all over the place, from, “He’s my dad!” to more existential answers like, “Will Wood doesn’t even know who the real Will Wood is.”
Walking into Backroom Studios was an experience in and of itself. The place had been decorated to the 9’s, featuring glitter, streamers, flowers, and balloons (which were also filled with glitter). Fans on the line outside rocked painted third eyes on the center of their foreheads, and were in high spirits, chattering with each other animatedly with adrenaline. Once inside, balloons could be heard popping, and immediately followed with screams of shock each time. All of these factors made for the perfect ambiance of what was to come for the night.
The stage was decorated with old television sets, flickering with static, displaying the signature third eye. Strewn about was even more glitter, tinsel, flowers, beads, and orange medication bottles. The keyboard on stage had been painted with flowers and skulls. The comedian Chris Dunne opened up the show but he had a difficult and rambunctious crowd to deal with. He told a story involving a time where he watched a porno that consisted of vomit (I’ll let your mind take care of the rest) that ended in a theme of finding love, and described the first time he had a friendly conversation with Wood. It was a fitting and hilarious introduction to the show.
The energy of the room completely changed when Wood sat down in front of his keyboard, as he taunted the audience repetitively saying, “What are you gonna do?” before immediately jumping into “6up 5Oh Cop-Out (Pro/Con).” This track took on a whole new life with just Wood and his keyboard, but it still held onto it’s own flavor of insanity that the full-band version has. When the song wrapped up, Wood relented in his own fashion that he is somehow alive “despite four forms of contraception.” This is nothing new at a Will Wood show; the artist tends to have a lot to say in between songs, but it’s never boring. Each “rant” sums up what track is next to come and each is necessary for better understanding the work itself.
Just before Wood broke into “Front Street” he stated that he was, “Young, dumb, and full of mood-stabilizers” and that, “If I’m going down, I’m taking all of you fuckers with me.” This track has a rag-time feeling to it, before transitioning with Wood’s erratic and beautiful vocal delivery, his fingers bouncing across the keys in such a way that proved that he was in his element. This was when Wood coaxed the crowd into joining him in his performance space, singing along in time, “Come closer / This is not a metaphor / Come closer.”
This was a different experience from what I’ve seen of Will Wood in the past. While his work with the Tapeworms creates an atmosphere of chaotic rock n’ roll, his solo act emits his jazz and more free-form influences. There was something about this show that I knew was going to scare me. The environment was on edge and frenzied, but this only played into the theme of what this event entailed: Who is the REAL Will Wood?
He introduced “The First Step” by speaking about his past alcohol issues, but the song itself is fun, upbeat, and darkly hilarious. It was a treat to watch Wood play this song with such gusto and energy, the crowd singing along with all they had, “I’d try to see the glass as half full / But I’d probably just drink that too,” laughing and smiling with each other. The next track, “2012,” was where the energy of the crowd seemed to change again. As Wood taunted the audience, they taunted him right back. This made for high tension in the room, and a sense of control was lost – however, this was only fitting for the entire atmosphere of the show. Wood could be seen slowly losing his mind behind his keyboard as he played with one hand and one heeled foot during the bridge. It was a beautiful thing to witness.
“Mr. Capgras Encounters a Secondhand Vanity…,” a fan favorite from the band’s second record, was just as fun to hear live and stripped down as the studio version. Wood laughed and hollered throughout, with the crowd shouting along with him, “Somebody to replace yourself! / Somebody to replace yourself!” A mini debate regarding gender broke out between the artist and the audience after this track, so Wood humorously began “White Knuckle Jerk (Where Do You Get Off?)” by singing, “He/she/they got the eyes of a snake- loaded dice-raising stakes from a cash cow.”
There was a moment where Wood introduced his “daughter,” a young girl looking to be about the age of 8, and dressed like a new-age Wednesday Addams. Her expression was blank and unemotional as she stood on Wood’s platform and the crowd hooted and played along with the character Wood has created for himself. As soon as he shooed the young girl off the stage, he broke into “Skeleton Appreciation Day in Vestal, NY (Bones)” which was a track I was looking forward to hearing in this setting. It’s reminiscent of a Billy Joel pop love song, but with the casual insanity that Wood has made completely his own, crooning, “They say that beauty’s just skin deep / So rip it off and please show me your / Bones, bones, bones.”
The set was concluded with “Everything is a Lot” from the band’s first album of the same name. The atmosphere of the room had everyone spent, nearly exhausted from the wild tirades of sound and tangents throughout the show. Wood introduced the track saying, “Thank you guys, and I’m sorry.”
There were countless times throughout this performance where I truly wasn’t sure if this was all an act, or if the entertainer was being just that- Will Wood. But that was the point of the experience. Is Will Wood a man, or is he an idea? Either way, he’s a stunning performer and his delivery for each song was often breathtaking. It all felt very real to me, almost to the point where it would make a listener uncomfortable. Without him, whoever the real Will Wood is, New Jersey loses its charm, its animosity, and its rules-out-the-window mentality. I can only hope that the rest of the country catches on to what he and his band are doing. This is work that makes no excuses, and the performances will surprise and shock you. Will Wood is real, and he’s here. He just exists in your mind.