in performance: the avett brothers

The Avett Brothers: Joe Kwon, Bob Crawford, Scott Avett and Seth Avett.

“I am a breathing time machine,” sang Scott Avett at the halfway point of an immensely affirmative performance by the Avett Brothers at Rupp Arena on Saturday evening. “I’ll take you all for a ride.”

That he did, along with guitarist/sibling Seth Avett, longtime bassist Bob Crawford and five other resourceful players, by tearing through a suitcase full of folk-rock inspirations and storylines that shifted from the delicate to the morose to the political. The combination mixed folk revival fervor with an organic performance design rooted in vintage indie pop and a dash of jam band glee. That meant the music that surfaced for the crowd of 5,000 was as fun as it was appealingly unvarnished.

The “time machine” brother Scott sang of in “Laundry Room” didn’t allude to any lasting sense of folk tradition. The Avetts didn’t come off as a throwback act. Any trace of traditionalism was fleeting, like the bluegrass accents that initiated “Denouncing November Blue (Uneasy Writer)” earlier in the evening. Instead, the Avetts preferred mashing up generations as well as stylistic influences, which is why many of the songs in the two-hour program possessed an intriguing sense of contrasting and, at times, conflicting dynamics.

“Laundry Room,” for instance, began with quiet, folkish reflection before exploding into a rambunctious ensemble hoedown. Similarly, “Bleeding White,” one of several tunes pulled from the Avetts’ new “Closer Than Together” album, shifted away from folk intention entirely and plugged into some of the show’s choicest electric stamina.

Sometimes the imagery turned dark, as in “Satan Pulls the Strings,” but the drive of the full seven-member ensemble – a troupe that augmented the core trio of Avett, Avett and Crawford with strings, keyboards and drums – dispelled any true spirit of menace. The groove was too hearty for that.

As intriguing as the give and take of the ensemble dynamics were, some of the evening’s most arresting moments came when the Avetts trimmed the band back to its trio foundation or less. The show-opening “Shame” let the modest blend of the brothers’ banjo/guitar dialogue ease the evening in before the full band charge took over. Later, the trio took to a single microphone at the end of a short walkway that extended into the audience to create a similar sense of intimacy with “I Wish I Was.”

Not everything worked, at least from a compositional standpoint. Seth Avett’s “We Americans,” another “Closer Than Together” song, was a well-meaning but overreaching socio-political discourse that didn’t possess the musical ingenuity to match its lofty narrative intent.

But for the most part, the band dynamics commanded the evening, as in the way the summery “At the Beach” prefaced the anthemic “Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise” and the manner in which a merry encore cover of the Bob Wills staple “Stay a Little Longer” (the show’s only obvious traditional concession) set up the more plaintive finale of “No Hard Feelings.”

It should be also noted that this performance may have a set a record for early evening completion of a Rupp concert. With no opening act on the bill and no intermission to indulge in, the Avetts delivered their full 23 song show and sent the crowd home before 10 o’clock. The start of a new arena show concept? If anyone is asking, my vote is a yea.

 



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