Avetts put on a show (but could you pogo to Hank Sr.?)
When a band is happening, when there's buzz around it, you can feel it in the air. You might not expect that electricity in the air for a band that prominently features a banjo, an acoustic bass and a cello, but it was there at Britt for the Avett Brothers Sunday night.
The Avetts, North Carolina brothers Scott (banjo, etc.) and Seth (guitar, etc.) and their bandmates (Bob Crawford on bass, Joe Kwon on cello, Jacob Edwards on drums) play a rootsy music that's part alt-county and part rock with touches of folk, pop, bluegrass, punk and honky-tonk, which sounds boiler-plate, but you have to hear them (check out "I and Love and You" on YouTube) to get it.
The band, whose music is sometimes called "punkgrass," has an enthusiastic following, as the sing-alongs and the screaming and the dancing testified. You could feel the energy gestating during a somewhat lackluster opening set by the young singer Jessica Lea Mayfield.
The 21-year old, wearing a pixie haircut, little black dress and heels, strummed chords on an acoustic guitar in front of competent lead and bass playing and drumming as she sang a series of mournful songs that proved being that being cute doesn't make up for a lack of energy. Don't take this as too snarky. Mayfield has some writing chops and a voice that'll put you in mind a bit of Lucinda Williams minus a couple hard decades of dues. But if she can't write songs with some energy, she should work up a couple of Patty Griffin covers.
The Avetts' energy, in contrast, was pretty much pegged to 10, even as the sweet harmonies of "Laundry Room" kicked off the show ("Don't push me out, just a little longer/ Stall your mother, disregard your fathers words ... I am a breathin' time machine").
The Avetts walked casually onto the stage in homespun cowboy clothes and short haircuts, a change from one of their favorite looks, which is The Band circa 1968. "The Fall" ("Your absence is the bullet and the past is your gun/ And we all fall down") found the boys jumping up and down and running about the stage with Scott playing mouth harp. It needed only a squeeze box to send the thing into hyper-Cajun territory.
"January" ("She keeps it simple") was about as close as the guys come to an old-fashioned mountain ballad. For guys who can sing lovely natural harmonies, they don't spend all that much time doing it. They even sang together as kids, raising the inevitable comparisons with the brothers Louvin, Everly, Allman, Wilson et al.
Their publicity says they were raised on Hank Sr., Ramblin' Jack Eliott, Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, and they might put you in mind of some of those artists on steroids and lots of coffee, along with smidges of Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young and other good company. They started touring seriously about a decade ago, had a bit of a breakthrough with 2007's "Emotionalism" and got named Artist to Watch of 2009 by Rolling Stone. They appeared on the 2011 Grammy telecast jamming with Bob Dylan on "Maggie's Farm."
But the most important milestone in their career was signing with producer Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, The Dixie Chicks) in 2008. Under Rubin, their big-label premiere, "I and Love and You" opened new waves of electronic pop/rock possibilities for what had been a little, essentially acoustic band. The evening saw several songs from that album, although not "I and Love and You" by the time the deadline bell beckoned a reviewer (but betcha they played it later).
"Shame," from the "Emotionalism" album ("OK so I was wrong about my reasons for us fallin' out of love I want to fall back in"), found the boys jumping up and down, almost pogoing ska-style, all five thumping time on their instruments and leaping to Crawford's bass, the crowd jumping along. And when's the last time you saw anybody dance with a cello?
When they want to, the Brothers can be wry as all get out, as witness "Love Like the Movies," a honky-tonk s—-kicker with lyrics that kill ("they're always playing the right song/ And in the ending there's always a resolution/ But real life is more than just two hours long").
The Avetts are a high-energy, fun aggregation that act like they have as good a time as their audience. You just hope down the road they'll come to trust the music, melody, harmony, roots and all, more and more.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.