You might have faith in their records, but seeing The Avett Brothers live will make you a true believer—and this has less to do with their religious allusions than it does with their almighty energy. My friend and roommate, Orlena Scoville, falls into this burgeoning cult-fan category, having recently tried to coerce me into flying to Portland for a weekend to see them perform there before they (thankfully) added the SF dates to their tour. Upgrading from two nights at Slim’s to The Fillmore in the course of a year, the duo (plus bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon), it seems, is getting its due—and shaking things up a bit. Since last spring the siblings have swapped looks, Seth shaving his latter-day Jim Morrison beard and transferring a pared-down version of it to Scott, only to grow out a mane worthy of Vidal Sasson himself. (Please refer to accompanying photos.) Armed with new styles and a few fresh songs this fateful Friday night, the four stood poised to play. In suits.
Now, sporting old-timey attire would almost seem incongruous for these guys with back-porch personas (you’d expect something a bit less buttoned-up, especially considering how much heat they generate during their performances), but when one thinks of Jude Law’s Cold Mountain clothing, it makes perfect sense for these North Carolina boys to hearken back to the fashion of their home state. Like with their sound, they are taking pieces of the past, integrating them with more modern, unlike elements, and presenting an entirely new product—and, in so doing, paying homage to their roots. If The Avett Brothers were writing a paper, the result would involve less plagiarism than ample researching. Though roots they have many, they have managed to synthesize them into a sound that just can’t be so simply defined. Nevertheless, Wikipedia will bombard you with terms like “indie roots,” “folk punk,” and “grungegrass” before pointing out that the band eschews such nomenclature, letting the music speak for itself free of the confines of labels. And they were free on Friday night, navigating seamlessly between home-grown bluegrass to folksy ballads to punk-inspired raps, digging deep into their past, pulling out parts of their repertoire I didn’t even know. Intentionally ignoring Emotionalism in favor of older records, Seth (the Avett spokesbrother) repeatedly informed us “this one’s from Mignonette,” “this one’s from The Second Gleam,” etc. Yeah, we get it. You have 10 records. And one more on the way. Lest we forget.
Despite the difference in height, the way Seth and Scott play off each other it’s clear they share something more than agreeable tonality, which is especially fortunate given how much two-part harmonizing they do. Music runs in their blood. As multi-instrumentalists, Scott was equally as comfortable on the drum kit as he was on the bad-ass banjo, and Seth simultaneously strummed his guitar and tapped out time on the hi-hat, which his hips seamlessly incorporated into his dance moves. But it didn’t stop there. Channeling his inner Mozart, Seth tenderly took the keys by storm—most notably in the ending to “Salina,” one of the highlights of the evening augmented by Kwon’s (the Avetts’ own Yo-Yo Ma) graceful cello—following the brothers’ brief but raucous foray into homesickness after life on the road. One look at their wedding bands and you can see why. Ostensibly players with a Southern drawl and a penchant for pretty women, it looks like they may have forsaken their philandering ways for their wives. During an acoustic solo set that set a spell of silence over the audience, Scott sang “Murder in the City,” whose lyrics, contrary to what one might think, stress the importance of family: “Always remember, there is nothing worth sharing / Like the love that let us share our name.”
But make no mistake: these bourbon brothers haven’t conquered all their vices. If they’ve stopped cheating, they haven’t stopped drinking. Scott’s solo was followed by Seth’s ode to (and cautionary tale for) drunk driving, “In the Curve,” in which he admits “I’m loose but my steering wheel’s tight”—but it’s when he confesses “Well my bottle of bourbon is gone / See it flew away all by itself” that the audience really went wild. He got the same impassioned reaction when he implored with a shout, “I’d give up the drinking, just tell me how!” in “Please Pardon Yourself.” But then, like their outfits and a song about killing your girlfriend’s boyfriend (“I Killed Sally’s Lover”), it’s hard to tell if their lyrics are truly autobiographical, or if they’re pulling a Dylan and just writing the words that people want to hear. In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter, because whatever the case, they do it damn well.
The Outside Lands lineup might not light a candle to last year’s (how is the sum of Pearl Jam, DMB, and The Black-Eyed Peas a fair trade for Radiohead?), but having them there might make it worth your while, if only for one day. I’ll be bringing my flask.