“It’s good to be onstage in a place where we can say ‘y’all’ and it’s not exotic,” remarked Seth Avett last night just before he and sibling Scott launched into the chamber-folk sway of Morning Song at Rupp Arena.
Such was the inviting hootenanny spirit that has long dominated the music of the Avett Brothers, a drive that was also in abundance for much for this near-two hour performance. The Avetts had little by way of new music to show off (the group, which was expanded to a seven-member lineup last night, is still touring behind 2013’s Magpie and the Dandelion), but that mattered little to the modest but feverish crowd of 4,500. They happily followed familiar paths through the Byrds-meets-Nitty Gritty Dirt Band strut of 2012’s Down with the Shine, the pure pop strains of 2007’s Die Die Die and the cartoon car chase inspiration of the 2003 instrumental D Bag Rag that merrily de-evolved into a quartet of kazoos.
Not everything hit the mark. The enlarged lineup at times fell into routine arena rock excesses like the vacuous drum solo and derailed jam that splintered out of Slight Figure of Speech. But several
sparser, quieter moments countered such indulgences. Most of them surfaced late in the program during an acoustic set that trimmed the band to solo (Seth Avett’s contemplative reading of The Ballad of Love and Hate), duo (the brothers’ take on the evening’s biggest rarity, Sanguine) and trio (an update of Evan Dando’s All My Life with longtime bassist Bob Crawford) configurations.
Otherwise, this was essentially business as usual for the Avetts, whether that meant employing cello, violin and bowed bass in a unison drone to ease the band into the show-opening Bring Your Love to Me or the motormouth lyrics and giddy ensemble stomp that ignited Talk of Indolence.
While the Avetts utilized all their resources to maintain a musical status quo, Jason Isbell ripped through an hour-long opening set that served as a robust portrait of a performer in his very unassuming prime.
His songs reflected strong, hard-earned country sentiments but had nothing in common with today’s Nashville fare. The sly Muscle Shoals groove of the set-opening Palmetto Rose (one of five works pulled from the recent Something More Than Free album) quickly established Isbell’s new generation Southern stance, one that champions heritage while disowning tired myths. 24 Frames proved more worldly in its outlook but was more emotionally combustible (“like a pipe bomb ready to blow”) while Outfit, one of two songs pulled from his Drive-By Truckers days, remained a quintessentially uneasy generational anthem (“You want to be old after 42 years, keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears”).
But the material itself was only part of the fireworks. Fueled by a remarkably crisp sound mix, Isbell revealed a vocal charge of greater intensity and durability than at any of his previous Lexington visits (all of which were at clubs). Similarly, the newest lineup of his 400 Unit band, especially keyboardist Derry DeBorja, provided clean, efficient orchestration that effortlessly filled the cavernous Rupp.
Then as his set headed for home, Isbell stepped out on guitar for monstrous solos during Never Gonna Change (the other Truckers tune) and the uproarious snapshot of past life decadence Super 8. The resulting music possessed the swagger and electricity of vintage Tom Petty but ultimately rocked with a confidence Isbell could claim as his own.