It wasn’t until I saw the Avett Brothers live that I understood the big fuss surrounding this stripped-down roots band. The recorded songs I liked from 2009’s I and You and Love I attributed to Rick Rubin’s studio wizardry, not to the magic of two North Carolinian brothers.
After giving a good vinyl listen to that record, I wondered, Is this just pop repackaged in a thin Americana facade?
Then I saw them live in 2010. What to me was a mess on record gelled into a forceful live sound — seductive melodies, distinctive two-part harmonies, and dynamics that move from relentless acoustic thrashings to a magnetic whisper in a southern minute.
Famed producer Bob Johnston once said of Dylan, “I think God instead of touching [Dylan] on the shoulder he kicked him in the ass.”
This ran through my head as I watched the Avett Bros on Monday night (3.3.14) at Portland, Maine’s Cumberland County Civic Center.
Elder brother Scott appeared to float above the stage, only coming down to land on the kick drum pedal beneath him. His right hand must have been ripped to shreds by his maniacal clawhammer banjo bashing. He looked more Johnny Rotten than acoustic folk singer. Avett the Younger, Seth, was a little more low key. But only a little.
Monday night I was reminded why I like this band. Their sound was raw. Loose like The Band. A calculated looseness that has more to do with intuition and feel than sloppy chops. Their tireless acoustic wall of sound felt like it was going to come apart at any moment in a folk supernova spawning new galaxies that hum in an open G tuning.
Piano heavy songs like “Head Full of Doubt” and “I and You and Love” that strike me as pop on record erupted on Monday night at the Civic Center in full indie rock glory. When the brothers urged, “Find what to be and go be it” on Monday, I felt an ethereal call-to-action flow through my veins. They made me a believer, again.
The Avetts are operating at a high-velocity trajectory right now as a live band. To say they’re magnetic is an understatement. Their gravitational pull threatened to implode the Civic Center and crush us all on Monday night.
More than punk-rock vitality or magnetism, though, it’s the harmonies between Scott and Seth that made their sound crackle. It’s like Lennon and McCartney in the way that it feels like two lead singers coming together to make a sublime roar. On Monday, that roar was grand.
I only have a couple of gripes. Gripe 1) What’s the deal with the cello. I mean, really. What the hell is going on there? I can’t pick it out in the mix. It’s a facet of this band that befuddles me. Gripe 2) How big is this band going to get before their acoustic sound — as adrenaline-fueled as it is — gets lost in the vast arenas they’re playing? If they add any more auxiliary musicians to their touring band, their sound is going to quickly free-fall into the acoustic mush of Chicago. The irony between their humble instruments and their arena surroundings could be the ultimate undoing to their grassroots street cred.
With all that stated, the band kicked bucket loads of Maine ass on Monday night. Their unprocessed sound might never translate properly to record, but if their amphetamine-driven tour comes close to your town, enter their orbit.