The Avett Brothers: A Sound To Call Its Own (Relix Revisited)
This past weekend the Avett Brothers animated the Hangout Festival. Here’s a look back at our feature on the group from the August/September 2009 issue of Relix…
This music waits for no one. Sorry. The lawn may be half empty, the sun may be shining full like high noon itself, but the ticket says that the show starts at 7 p.m. So all of you late-comers stalling for bathrooms and beers, fumbling with tickets and finding your seats, y’all will just have to catch up. And quick. Because the Avett Brothers are fast plucking the first notes of a magic night. An opportunity that could help launch them toward the big time—or just leave them rocking in relative obscurity—which is good. Because whether it’s emotions like love and hate or styles like punk and ragtime, it’s always that battle of opposing forces that propels them forward.
In this case, it’s driving them right to the edge of the stage, lined up mere feet from the precipice as if they might tumble into the audience. Sporting cardigan sweaters, three-piece suits and combed hair akin to a 19th century tin-type photo, they purposely steal an old-timey look to go with the upright bass and cello, acoustic guitar and banjo, plus a single kick drum—only to come to life in a blast of modern vitality that broadcasts to the back of the amphitheater’s lawn. No need for Jumbotrons or lightshows or other big venue trappings. Just four dudes. Five instruments. Two poignant, pleading voices.
“I remember seeing them for the first time playing in the doorway of a gallery,” says Nicole Atkins, a self-described psychedelic/alt/folk rocker and friend from their college days in Western North Carolina. “At the time they were still doing Nemo, their rock act. But this was just so different. I was like, ‘Forget that other band, you should do this.’”
They’ve done it for roughly 10 years, just as many studio releases and have a ballooning tour schedule that now hits 200 shows annually. In the past 30 months, they’ve played SXSW, opened for Widespread Panic and appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Last summer, they sold out a 7,000-seater. Last week, they opted for a Chattanooga record store. Tonight, the Concord, N.C.-born band is warming up the Raleigh crowd for Dave Matthews Band, the first of six openers at his invitation. And possibly the Avetts biggest show yet—depending on how you look at it.
“We did this country festival once where played to the backs of about 10,000 people,” laughs a freshly shaved Seth Avett. “But we’ve never played a venue this big.”
“And this is certainly a big opportunity,” adds brother Scott. “And it’s an honor because [Matthews] is so selective.”
Seth’s the lankier, younger, guitar playing brother and looks the part—swapping vintage vest for a hard-rocking headband and fresh shave. Scott, still-bearded, leans toward trucker hats and rambling, country metaphors— much like his banjo. Both share a habit of finishing, and sometimes volunteering, each other’s thoughts—in person and in song. And all three, even upright bassist Bob Crawford—a clean-cut Jersey boy who joined the band in 2002— behave like perfect Southern gentleman. As humble and polite backstage as they are between songs, where “thank yous” and “we love yous” punctuate almost every pause. That combo of hard work and sincere appreciation makes you want to root for their success more. And with a release out in August produced by Rick Rubin—also at his request—this so-called “college band” could quickly slip from underground indie favorites to full-on superstars.
So is this summer a change of seasons that plunges them full-on into the mainstream? Or is it merely a chance moment where two bends, in two rivers, briefly combine and then meander on in opposite directions, carrying the Avett Brothers back into dark woods where harmonies, screams and banjos drift along?
“Well,” Scott says shrugging, “the mainstream sort of decides that.”
So let’s step back to the show itself and its audience. Old fans are here. And some new ones. And most certainly some soon-to-bes. There are laced-up businessmen and loose, same-sex couples. You’ve got graybeards in worn tie-dyes and teenagers in brand new Ramones shirts, barely old enough to remember Joey’s death, much less see them live. It’s a clash worthy of the band’s musical styles and history, a volatile mix of ragtime, old-time, bluegrass, indie and pop. While their studio efforts are often low-key, mellow boutiques of careful arrangements, onstage the Avetts juggle these same treasures like a drunken yard sale, spilling tender ballads and frantic outpourings. It’s a genuinely odd mix that may confuse programmers and promoters but not listeners. And certainly not the band.
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