It was a Sunday evening at the House of Blues in Chicago and the venue was packed to capacity. Inebriated fans of all shapes and sizes lunged towards the stage in hopes of getting closer to their beloved Avett Brothers. Many awaited the band’s arrival by stubbornly holding their ground, scowling at latecomers attempting to shimmy closer to the stage and bars.
The Avett Brothers of Concord, North Carolina have been on the rise, tirelessly touring since last April. They have been selling out venue after venue in support of their 2009 major label debut I and Love and You. Brothers Scott and Seth Avett formed the trio in 2000 with bassist Bob Crawford. Since then they have recorded 13 albums, gained cellist Joe Kwon in 2007, landed a record deal with American/Columbia, worked with famed producer Rick Rubin, and gained a drummer, all while staying loyal and thankful towards their fans, and it shows. During their journey the band’s repertoire has evolved from acoustic folk –rock to pop, country and now full blown Americana.
I decided to experience what all the Avett Brother hype was about, and caught their stop in Chicago. Without exactly knowing what I was to experience, I found myself in a room full of pushy folks who resembled the likes of O.A.R. and Dave Matthews Band fans (which is fine if that’s your cup of tea). Around 9:30P.M. The Avett Brothers took stage and unleashed an opening of pure Americana energy decorated with harmonica, banjo, acoustic guitar and cello. Instantly fans screamed and jumped, belting out every lyric alongside the band. In fact, fans audibly sang every lyric to every song in shameless unison for the duration of the show.
The Avett Brothers kept the energy afloat with their sock hop bop “Slight Figure of Speech”, which heavily relied on the backbeat of Crawford’s bass and driving force of Seth’s guitar. From there the band slowed down the pace and performed several ballads. The measured pieces prompted heavy swaying, poor singing and raised twinkling fingers from a bulk of the audience. Females simultaneously melted down and palpitated during the romantic acoustic-folk ballad “January Wedding”. Every mention of marriage and weddings generated responses of dainty whoots and hollers, often followed by “We love you!” Perhaps it was spring fever influencing such senses.
The tempo soon regained speed with the triumphant “Colorshow”. Scott and Seth introduced the song with tales of extended family roots in Chicago and visits to the vast city during childhood. That being said the brothers welcomed their native-cousin Gina to join them on drums for the subsequent number. The composition was an anthem of character full of spring and force. As fans bounced about one could feel the venue floor rumble due to springs implanted underneath the floorboards for such an occasion.
Both brothers had their moments to shine with solo acoustic numbers. Seth was up first with his “The Ballad of Love and Hate” off 2007’s Emotionalism. Band members cleared the stage with the exception of Seth, who remained center stage. The audience gave Seth their complete attention, for the venue was nearly silent minus minimal environmental chit chat. I gazed around the room and saw several fans with their eyes drawn shut silently lip-syncing along to the parity of dichotomies. Upon finishing it appeared a significant weight of nerves had been lifted from Seth’s being. Naturally his moment was well received. Seth responded by saying “There’s a lotta love in the room tonight, lotta love in the room…this seems like one of those nights where at the end of the night your mouth hurts from smiling.”
Scott’s moment came later in the set with his acoustic number “Murder in the City”. He sang of family ties, love and sentiment. Yet again with each mention of love fans cheered, hollered and joined in on the lyrics. The performers onstage threw down with such potency and vigor that drum heads had to be adjusted by stagehands mid-song, instruments tuned and strings replaced. Crawford resembled a character from Happy Days, as Scott swaggered around stage with his banjo similar to Bruce Springsteen circa Born in the U.S.A. Seth resembled Chris Robinson with his full beard, acoustic guitar and hip bouncing dance moves.
Perhaps the most impressive performer to watch was Kwon on cello, whose dark chest-length hair loosely flew about as he transformed sweeping melodies to foot stomping harmonies; rarely did Kwon’s instrument remain in contact with the stage. Substituting cello for fiddle added interesting and unconventional color to the otherwise traditional set up. Kwon’s vibrant playing truly stuck-out during the band’s rendition of Roger Miller’s “Where have all the Average People Gone?” Each bow offered beautiful sweeping harmonies that rode alongside the melody.
The band brought the first set to an end with the epic “Pretty Girl from Chile”, taking the audience through twists and turns of musical styling. It showcased the band’s characteristic sound of acoustic twangs and harmonies, discussing emotions, love and longing. Fused in the mix was traditional Chilean music cueca, a stunning cello break down, fierce banjoing, a switch to electric rock, a voicemail sampling, resolving in a full force drive of cueca combined with the full force drive of Western rock. For someone not familiar with The Avett Brother’s music the song seemed surprising, unconventional and utterly unique.
Afterwards the band limped offstage appearing sweaty and exhausted. They held on to some juice for a quiet encore, which lasted a couple of songs. The band themselves admitted that their instruments had been rocked to the point that they were out of tune, though they continued to truck on.
Overall The Avett Brothers offered a steady flow of 2+ hours of music. Between the band and the audience the exchange of thanks was endless; more than once either Scott or Seth would step to the mic and say, “Y’all are making this show so fun.” Complete with ample southern charm, The Avett Brothers truly gave the performance everything they had. They tackled: love ballads, self-righteous anthems, story-telling lyrics, acoustic solos, outlaw country rock, folk and folklore all mixed with a roots rock twang.
Through the frenzy of enthusiasm and passion I have to say that my spirits remained grounded compared to the majority of the spectators. Granted, I was not completely familiar with the music, and I felt more like a wall flower observing everyone jumping around having a grand ol’ time. Perhaps it was the indoor stuffiness of the House of Blues that kept my spirits at ease, or the fact that I was not convinced by the endless themes of love and heartbreak. The music simply did not whisk me away like the rest. I do applaud the band for keeping their fans enthralled, on their toes and wrapped up in the music.
The Avett Brothers have a bona fide spark to them and they will continue to move upwards, grasping their commitment to their fans, music and selves without “selling out”.