If memory serves me correctly, I’ve seen the Avett Brothers in concert five times. Each show has been a wonderful experience, but I’d have to say my favorite was in 2007 at the now defunct venue/dive bar called The Dame in Lexington, KY. The Dame, a former touchstone of the Lexington music community, was part of a class of smaller venues country-wide that the brothers used to play more frequently before their fanbase grew exponentially with the release of their last studio album I and Love and You in 2009. That exponential growth was evidenced by their show at Rupp Arena last Thursday evening. A man, who I believe said he was the owner of Rupp Arena, came out and talked to fans before the show started and said that they had sold about 5,000 tickets, though it felt to me like more than that. Regardless of the final tally, this concert confirmed that no matter what size the venue, the typical Avett Brothers energy and passion has certainly not been lost and, if anything, the group seems almost more inspired and excited than it’s ever been.
Jesssica Lea Mayfield was the opener, and though Rupp probably isn’t the best venue for a simple performance by a girl playing sad country songs accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, I thought she did a great job. I heard some people say that all of her songs sounded the same, but it’s hard to pick up on the nuances of every song (especially songs you’ve never heard before) in a big venue with no added instrumentation and nobody singing harmony. That is, of course, unless you count the brothers Avett, Scott and Seth, obviously huge fans of Mayfield,who came out with her on the very first song to sing harmony with her (on her mic) on the chorus of “For Today.” Avett devotees will already know that the band does a glorious cover of this great song that has made the rounds on Youtube and has nearly a million views. I had suspected they might come out and do the song with her but had no idea it’d be the very first one. There was an added grace to the moment as the brothers did not speak a single word to the crowd, and when the song was over they quietly exited the stage.
The brothers returned after Mayfield finished her set with cellist extraordinaire Joe Kwon and a replacement for Bob Crawford on bass; unfortunately Crawford has been unable to attend a string of shows due to health issues his daughter has been facing. Although Bob was missed, his replacement filled in nicely. The group began their set surprisingly with the slow opening chords of “Salina” from the albumEmotionalism, followed by “And It Spread” and it’s rollicking, shouty chorus from the album I and Love and You. They played mostly songs from these two albums, including crowd favorites “Will You Return”, “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise”, “Shame”, “Go To Sleep”, and “I and Love and You .” The energy was contagious from the get go, with “Salina” morphing into a sing-a-long that name drops cities from across the country, including a favorite moment for Southern audiences when Scott sings “New York, quit calling, New York leave me be.” During the “la-las” (that went on for many minutes longer than the album version, and were a blast) at the end of “Go To Sleep”, the brothers played to the crowd, Scott saying “I hear you singing” and Seth saying “Y’all sound beautiful!” to the applause and shouting and continued singing-along of the Rupp Arena crowd.
This brings me to what I thought was the best thing about the show: the interaction between band and audience. It was plainly obvious that the Avetts were having a ball playing their songs for the Kentucky faithful, and that in turn seemed to give the crowd permission to get respectfully rowdy, to participate along with the band in what from the beginning seemed more like a celebration than a music show. About halfway through the faint – and then heavy – smell of marijuana began to fill the general admission section on the floor of the arena. I looked around several times and people were jumping up and down, bobbing their heads, smiling, looking at their friends as if to say what a great time they were having, and – perhaps most importantly – singing along with every word. I know some people get annoyed when crowds sing at shows, but I love it. And the band encouraged it – I could hear their playing, singing, and crowd banter loud and clear.
A few other highlights for me include when Scott and Seth took to a single microphone at the left of the stage for some truly brotherly singing of “When I Drink” and “Murder in the City” from The Gleam EPs, and then a surprising and stirring rendition of “Sorry Man” from one of their first long-player releases, A Carolina Jubilee. The song is a determined story about young love persevering in the face of parental opposition to the young man, and the crowd, guys and girls alike, ate it up. The song fits the banjo- and acoustic guitar-only arrangement nicely. Another favorite of the night was when they played “At The Beach” from Mignoette. I had never heard the song live before and it surpassed my expectations; it was fun, breezy (as the title might imply), and even a little funky. The crowd got down. Live favorite “Talk On Indolence” absolutely rocked, and it was hilarious listening to the everyone try to sing along with the tongue-twisting opening of the song. A song from their up and coming album to be released (hopefully) early next year called “The Once and Future Carpenter” slowed the pace but not the celebration, and many fans already knew the words; it’s one of the most mature and life-affirming tunes the brothers have ever penned. I also loved watching Joe Kwon play his cello, relentlessly breaking strings and head-banging all the while. His passion for his instrument, as it is with the other members of the band, is palpable. Some songs he played without the cello touching the ground, and at one point he rocked it out like an electric guitar while his long black hair covered his face like The Undertaker. I wasn’t sure how he’d fit in when he joined the group in 2007, but four years later there is no question he belongs and brings an energy and musical ability all his own. Be sure to keep an eye on him at the next Avett show you go to.
The band concluded with “The Perfect Space” and returned for a two-song encore that included “Swept Away” and the oft-covered Earl Scruggs tune “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues”, which ended the night fittingly in a bluegrassy fever. Do not let the naysayers and skeptics fool you in to thinking The Avett Brothers have sold out or gotten “too big” to be enjoyable. It simply ain’t true. I can’t imagine getting my money’s worth, plus more – the band displayed contagious energy and true gratitude, not to mention they played for nearly two hours – from any other band than I did last Thursday with these guys. It’s a pleasure having a group like them making music in this present day for so many people to connect so profoundly with, not only at shows but on albums, and hopefully they will be touring for a long time to come. They are truly a band for our times, lacking pretension, affirming life, and earnest when it’s cool not to be. Their tours are about more than a string of shows, they are about celebrating life: the ups, the downs, the similar experiences we all have. And the thing about a celebration is that you are invited and encouraged to participate. It’s time to get rowdy.