in performance: the avett brothers with jessica lea mayfield

The Avett Brothers onstage last night at Rupp Arena: banjoist Scott Avett (left) and guitarist Seth Avett. Photo by Herald-Leader staff photographer Mark Cornelison.

The proceedings could not have started more simply. On the Rupp Arena stage last night, before a crowd of 4,300, was a single microphone surrounded by the evening’s three featured performers – opening act Jessica Lea Mayfield and headliner siblings Scott and Seth Avett.

The song at hand, Mayfield’s For Today, was a suitably twisted love parable full of fevered restlessness. But when the Avetts joined in on the chorus, the tune became something less fearful. It sounded like an indie pop variation of a campfire song. Mayfield’s twilight-hued lyrics may have driven the story, but the resulting harmonies touched on the kind of primitive blues, folk and even country that the Avetts have made very much their own over the past decade.

Of course, when the Avetts’ featured set emerged later in the program, such simplicity was stripped down, reconstructed and generally turned inside out in a performance full of combustible physical energy, storylines of hippie-esque hope that would do the Grateful Dead proud and a musical vocabulary that never seemed to run short of invention.

The set opening Salina was a marvelous case-in-point. It began – again, simply – with banjoist Scott Avett piloting the tune as if it were a regal hymn. Then the pace quickened, a sense of footstomping faith took over (along with a transfer of lead vocal duties to guitarist Seth Avett; such a tag team approach was deployed throughout the evening) and a curious coda commenced that sent the latter Avett Brother to the piano. Cello, bowed string bass and wordless, high-tenor harmonies then made the finale sound like a cross between the Moody Blues and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

But what ignited the performance, and what has undoubtedly helped trigger and sustain the Avetts’ grassroots fanbase in recent years, was a sort of modern hootenanny demeanor. Cellist Joe Kwon may have provided an unconventional (but most welcome) accent to standard hootenanny strategies. But the barnstorming fun the Avett Brothers summoned – whether it was from the full quintet charge of And It Spread (which added drummer Jacob Edwards to the mix), the kick-drum fueled quartet version of I Killed Sally’s Lover or the all-out punkish stomp of Go to Sleep – seldom dipped during the 90 minute-plus set.

There were some nice variations within this oddly rootsy mix, too – the most notable being Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise, which mixed Dylan-esque narratives with a piano-fueled, chanty-style melody.

One of the performance highlights, in fact, suggested where the Avett Brothers’ musical odyssey might be headed next. The new and as-yet-unreleased Once and Future Carpenter, a quieter acoustic tune, blended perhaps obvious spiritual references with a very earthy sense of fate (“My life is a coin pulled from an empty pocket”).

It should be noted also that the Avett Brothers were without the services last night of longtime bassist Bob Crawford, who is on leave from the band to care for his 22 month old daughter. She is recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumor and a subsequent stroke. In his place was former Langhorne Slim bassist Paul Defiglia, who provided a tamer but still resourceful foundation for the Avetts music.

The rest of Mayfield’s opening set, which she performed solo, was full of refreshingly obtuse love songs that ran from the boozy, poetic unease of Nervous Lonely Night (“Will you still be my friend when I go insane?”) to the more replenishing Blue Skies Again.

Admittedly, an opening slot on an arena bill is probably not the ideal way to experience Mayfield. But if that means more people get introduced to the torchy intimacy of her songs, then a night out at Rupp with the Avetts was a fruitful venture indeed.

Comments are closed.

Terms of Service | Privacy Policy | About Our Ads | Copyright