After the Avett Brothers finished tearing the roof off of Greenville, South Carolina’s Peace Center, a friend came up to me and said, “I haven’t witnessed that much church in years.” He wasn’t just referring to the show’s short but plenty uplifting gospel segment, but also to the charge that ran through the secular material. Whether they’re singing about family, drinking, or pretty girls from San Diego to Chile to Annapolis to wherever, the Avett Brothers are filled with a spirit. And to watch them pinballing around the stage, it’s obviously a demanding one.
After opener Nicole Atkins finished a solid set punctuated by very promising new material, the crowd was standing and cheering for the Avetts before they even hit the stage. Opening with “Standing with You”, the band warmed up a bit by setting the tone with their crystal-clear harmonies. Then they immediately took everything into the red with the manic strum of “Please Pardon Yourself”. The crowd went nuts, but they were no match for the Avett Brothers. Bouncing, careening, stomping, and dancing in a fashion that was both disturbing and fascinating at the same time, the band immediately put newcomers’ jaws on the floor. By the time “Please Pardon Yourself” was over, a microphone had been knocked from its stand and two banjo strings had been broken—one on the original banjo, and then one on the replacement banjo. (By night’s end, Scott and Seth Avett would claim the lives of four banjo strings and two guitar strings between them.)
1 Nov 2008: Peace Center Greenville, SC
At that point, all bets were off, and while the band arguably might not have hit the turbo button like that again, they maintained a staggering level of energy for the rest of the night, even during the ballads, which crackled with emotion. On record, a song like The Second Gleam‘s gorgeous “Tear Down This House” is light and delicate; live, it roars with emotion, and pensive lines like “I remember crying over you and I don’t mean like a couple of tears and I’m blue / I’m talking about collapsing and screaming at the moon / But I’m a better man for having gone through it” gain crowd-shaking force. And if a ballad can do that, imagine what the more upbeat numbers can do. The Peace Center is less than twenty years old, with a formal interior designed for plays and symphonies. Until I saw the Avett Brothers take the stage, I’d never felt the Peace Center floor shake under me like it was a rickety old barn. It was also a far cry from the Avetts’ records, which, despite their increasing quality, rarely come close to this type of energy.
If the crowd was going nuts, the Avetts were one step ahead of them. However, what often looked like rabid stomping on the part of Scott or Seth Avett was actually generating percussion against a lone kick drum or snare at the lip of the stage (a small drum kit occupied the traditional space behind the band, and was even used occasionally). Looking like a couple of one-man bands up there, Scott and Seth accompanied cellist Joe Kwon and standup-bassist Bob Crawford through a set that was equal parts heartache and jubilation. Long before the Buddy Hollyisms of “Gimmeakiss” blasted from the speakers, the Avett Brothers proved that, for all the traditional elements in their sound, they’re pretty much a rock ‘n’ roll band. Heck, after witnessing a powerful solo version of the plaintive “Murder in the City” and watching Scott Avett roll his eyes up into his head and go through his best Angus Young spasms while tearing up the banjo song after song, I started to get some sense of what people might have been witnessing at those old Replacements shows—minus the drunkenness and self-destruction.
And you don’t get the sense that wild debauchery plays much of a role in the Avetts world. On this night, in fact, they displayed very grounded roots by bringing out their father and sister for three songs: “Keep On the Sunnyside”, “The Old Rugged Cross”, and “Down By the Riverside”. It was the first night that the family’s gospel record, Jim Avett and Family was for sale, and the mini-set made for a nice interlude in the middle of the show.
The show ended in fine fashion. “Go to Sleep” ended on wave after wave of “la la la”‘s from the crowd, which continued unabated until the band came out for their encore. It might have been for only one song, but “Pretty Girl from Chile” almost feels like the band’s own mini-“Stairway to Heaven”, with its buildup through three distinct, increasingly driven stages. Pensive lyrics of travelling give way to a strident South-of-the-Border rhythm and then finally everything explodes into a full-on electric orgy of noise. It was a blistering end to a blistering night of music, one which sent this listener (and probably many others) straight to the band’s website to see when their next show in the area would be.
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// Notes from the Road
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