Onstage last week in Tennessee, the Tarheel twangers ‘n’ thumpers, freshly-shorn and basking in the audience’s encouragement, demonstrated why they are the heirs to the contemporary Americana throne—if not the already-crowned kings.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Although they retain their down home, good ol’ boys persona, the Avett Brothers have advanced head first into the major leagues over the last couple of years. Their albums are eagerly anticipated, they can claim a big name producer in Rick Rubin, a major label record deal with Republic Records (yet another live album arrives in stores next week), an expanded front line from three to five, bragging rights due to selling out Madison Square Garden in a matter of minutes, Grammy nods, and even have a celebrity scandal that landed them on the cover of the tabloids, that being Seth Avett’s affair with actress Jennifer Carpenter. Still, none of that notoriety would matter at all were it not for the fact that the Avetts put on one of the most energized and effusive shows imaginable, a none stop whirlwind of frenetic choreography and spontaneous free-for-all activity that keeps their audiences on their feet from the first notes to the last and shouting their approval and encouragement every step of the way.
That was certainly the case this past Friday night at Knoxville’s stately Tennessee Theater, and the mutual admiration shared between band and fans was all too apparent. Looking cleanly scrubbed after shedding their hairy manes, Seth, Scott, bassist Bob Crawford, Cellist Joe Kwon, fiddle player Tania Elizabeth, keyboardist Paul DeFiglia and drummer Mike Marsh took instant command of the proceedings from the first notes on. The initial number, a rousing instrumental meant to get the party started, ended with the musicians forming a kazoo chorus that amped the energy up at the outset. From that point on, the stage became a kinetic flurry of activity with each player seemingly self-propelled and individually enthused. At one point, Scott, sporting a beard and suspenders in typical good old boy regalia, actually did an entire workout routine, starting with jumping jacks and proceeding into push-ups, sit-ups and bicycle pumps. Clearly, the boy’s in good shape, an undiminished flurry of exhilaration rivalled only by the others that share the stage with him.
It’s also clear by now that the band’s newest recruits have been fully integrated into the fray. DeFiglia doubled on bass on more than one occasion, allowing Crawford to pick up his fiddle and join in some hillbilly hoedowns. Kwon, always a whirlwind of activity, dueted with Elizabeth to give the band its own mini string section. Marsh figured into the frenzy as well, ably propelling the band while hammering his drum kit with a flourish.
As far as the songs were concerned, the group covered some wide terrain, veering from familiar favorites from their past catalog (“Paranoia in B Flat Minor,” “Down with the Shine,” “Kick Drum Heart”), to tunes befitting their North Carolina pedigree (“Floppy Eared Mule,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me”), some old time gospel (“In the Garden”), and a pair of songs slated for a pair of forthcoming albums, one live and one studio (“Satan Pulls the Strings” and “Divorce Separation Blues”). The latter number was especially telling given Seth’s extramarital exploits and he himself conceded the fact that it underscored what was inevitably an expensive proposition. Not surprisingly, those comments garnered a knowing chuckle from the crowd.
Their formal set completed, the group left the stage only to return a few minutes later for their extended encore. Seth mocked the fact that they might deign to return, suggesting it was no secret that they were far from finished. Scott’s solo read of “Murder in the City” was much anticipated and indeed, one of the concert’s emotional highlights, but the omission of the equally stirring “I And Love And You” amounted to the evening’s only real disappointment. Still, the Avetts’ ability to transform such sad, sweet songs into homespun homilies of anthemic proportion always dazzles devotees, which this audience was definitely comprised of entirely.
A folk/bluegrass/indie rock conglomerate boasting exceptional enthusiasm, the Avetts were, in a word, absolutely awesome.
Top photo from the Avetts’ Facebook page; middle by Alisa Beth Cherry; lower, official band promo shot.