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The Avett Brothers

Live, Volume 3

(Columbia/American; US: 5 Oct 2010; UK: Import)

I have followed this band for ten years or so, ever since a friend told me that since I was such a fan of (especially Southern) folk music, I was just going to LOVE the Avett Brothers. Get thee to the record store, I was admonished. And, what I found was indeed notable: this pair of dreamy North Carolinian siblings, one on guitar and one on banjo, had a distinct sound, a bright approach, and an undeniable energy. Though the songwriting was rather too “on the nose” to be called poetic or profound, their earnestness and complete lack of irony was refreshing for a young band. And, as a sucker for harmonies, I was well served by this pair of sweet voiced brothers and their familial choral connection. But, for all their strong points, I never warmed to them. I listened, kept buying whatever they released, and wondered if they’d grow on me. I guess now I know that they didn’t, and maybe just plain won’t.


The Avett Brothers, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, combine the “heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, [and] the raw energy of the Ramones”. Which is supposed to be a good thing. But, to my ears, this cacophony of unlikely approaches often tangles together and winds up sounding more like chaos than tunefulness. (Plus, they have about as much Townes Van Zandt in them as does Katy Perry, so let’s dispense with this overused comparison right away. It’s absurd.)


After a highly lauded pair of studio records—2007’s mostly good Emotionalism and last year’s Rick Rubin-produced major label entrée (and candidate for most cloying album title of forever) I and Love and You—the Avetts have returned with a victory lap in the form of a live record. This is, as the title suggests, their third attempt to capture their famously energetic live show in 1s and 0s. And since this is a band known for its “you had to be there!” performances—at least some of their fans have adopted the whole Dave Matthews Band approach to touring, following them around and holding up Avett Nation signs, etc.—you’d figure these live records would be the place to hear the real brilliance of this group. Their shows are celebrated as wild, unhinged affairs, as much like a rock concert as any acoustic show has ever been. Many people think that this is fantastic. And, in the flesh, maybe it is. But, unfortunately, on record it mostly sounds rangy and irritating. 


Culled from a homecoming show recorded on August 8, 2009 at Charlotte, NC’s Bojangles Coliseum, Live, Volume 3 presents about 70 minutes of material, and lots of adoring fans. This isn’t a concert, it’s a love in. “I’m starting to wonder why we ever even leave” is the kind of thing they say to their ecstatic audience between songs. In fact, most tunes end with a wild ovation and some variation on the “we love you and thanks” theme. (Sounding completely sincere, for example, Seth says “It’s real difficult to sound sincere on a microphone, but we love you all too in a very big way” at the end of “When I Drink”.) It’d be ridiculous for me to complain about this, but here goes. This constant audience adulation colours the listening experience. The unvarying cheering, persistent singing along, and shouting out of words and phrases winds up defining the sound of this record. As in: if you are keen on the quiet little song “Ballad of Love and Hate”, here’s what it sounds like when a couple thousand people are hollering out the lyrics while Seth plays it. (See also: here’s how it sounds when it includes a false start, and lasts almost 8 minutes.)


There are certainly moments here that are worth hearing. The take on “Head Full of Doubt” is excellent, “I and Love and You” is gorgeous, and the harmonies on the opener “Pretty Girl From Matthews” work well. But, in terms of advancing the material on their records, and offering an opportunity to bask in the (apparent) glory that is an Avett Brothers show, it’s off the mark. The fast and loud numbers like “Talk on Indolence” and “I Killed Sally’s Lover” are too treble-heavy and noisy to be pleasurable to listen to, and the raucous crowd collaboration takes a strip off the otherwise pretty quiet songs. This was, probably, a fun and rousing show to attend. And, if these guys came to my town, I’d most likely get in line. But, I just can’t see putting this one on more than a few more times before it starts to gather dust.

Rating:

Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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