Sunday night’s Grammy performance was a big one for The Avett Brothers, perhaps the most important five minutes of their career. Paired with Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons, these good ol’ boys from North Carolina were one of the most buzzed-about groups both before and after the show aired, exposing them to millions and millions of people who I’m sure had never heard their brand of bluegrass/folk/country/punk/rock before. Even Tony Kornheiser gave them a shoutout on his TV show, “Pardon the Interruption.”
They didn’t directly address the Grammys during their show Friday night at D.C.’s soldout Constitution Hall (their first gig since), but they let their songs do the talking. I believe it is absolutely no accident they opened with “Murder in the City,” a gorgeous ballad off 2007’s “The Second Gleam” EP that features just Scott and Seth Avett, one guitar, one mic, and one spotlight. The key line goes like this:
A tear fell from my father’s eyes
I wondered what my dad would say
He said, “I love you and I’m proud of you both
In so many different ways.”
So, yeah, it’s only two minutes into a nearly two-hour show, and I already have goosebumps. There would be more.
The Avetts certainly show no signs of folding under the pressure of their burgeoning fame. Friday’s show sold out long before the Grammys, and Constitution Hall is the largest D.C. venue the brothers have headlined to this point. Their sound and stage presence is so assured, they definitely did not seem undersized for the room. The big, full-band moments exploded off the stage, while the quiet numbers were captivating.
The key, I think, is how authentic and genuine they are as they go about their business. These songs they play are too intense—be that intensely emotional or intensely fun—to just go through the motions. And it’s not like this is some outsized rock outfit that can rely on squalling guitars for support: They go up there with an acoustic guitar, banjo, cello, stand-up bass, and occasional drumkit and piano and just let fly. At the end of “Kick Drum Heart,” for example, Seth did something I’ve never seen before: to punctuate the heartbeat drum cadence at the end of the song, he walked back to their stage drape and started hitting it in time with the kick drum, causing the whole thing to flutter like a heartbeat. At another point he climbed on top of their gear boxes at stage right—almost into the laps of the people in the box seats—to lead a crowd singalong. As is his practice, meanwhile, Scott broke a banjo string rather early in the show (see start of "Paranoia" video below).
I’ve only been listening to The Avett Brothers for a year or so. Their catalog is so deep I haven’t had the time to explore it all and know every song from the first chord, like I do with my favorite bands (that will change, though, after this show). But their songs are the kind that feel like best friends by the end, even if you’ve never heard them before. Their music is one big open invitation to come join the family. They played three unreleased cuts Saturday night, and the best for me was easily “Open-Ended Life,” a wide-open rocker that’s one of the most straightforward uptempo songs they’ve ever written. This must be on their next album.
I guess they’re still technically touring off their breakthrough album, 2009’s “I and Love and You,” but you’d never know it by the setlist, which reached as far back as “November Blue” from their first full-length album, 2002’s “Country Was.” Every album had at least one representative at the party, most notably 2007’s “Emotionalism.”
That record’s “Paranoia in Bb Major” was one of my favorites of the night. Again, I believe this song was intentionally selected with the Grammys in mind, due to this utterly appropriate verse:
I’ve found myself in
A place that I’ve never been
A place that I thought that I would never be
These people looking back at me
Cue 3,700 voices raised in a unified cheer. More goosebumps.
The two showstoppers of the night, however, were probably their two best-known songs. “I and Love and You” was the perfect way to close the main set, as that song builds to a huge crescendo and then ends with a massive a capella singalong. And then there's “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise.”
This is the song they played Sunday at the Grammys, and I thought it was a poor choice. Following Mumford & Sons’ intense intro, the Avetts pushed “Doubt” too far to try and match (or perhaps it was just nerves). Back in the friendly confines of their own show, though, they played it with just the right mixture of strength and tenderness. What I love so much about this track is how everyone on it shines: when it hits that final glorious chorus, the entire band is at full power, and the heady brew they stir up is exactly right for whatever room they’re playing. If The Avett Brothers have written a better song, I haven’t heard it yet.
The show wasn’t perfect, but that had nothing to do with the band and everything to do with the venue. Constitution Hall is a horrible place to see a concert. The sound is often muddy and difficult to mix (Scott’s banjo was lost early in the show and the bass was up way too high). The seats are so close together on the floor it’s almost impossible to move and dance around with any genuine fervor. And the room’s just big enough to let in the tourists, yet small enough that those same morons can shout obnoxious things during quiet moments (quiet songs included!) and still be heard clearly. Can someone just go build a 9:30 Club that’s about three times the size of the original?
That said, the Avetts’ abundant joy easily overcame these shortcomings. Theirs is the type of show where you clap your hands until they’re red and sore … and then just keep clapping some more.
The Avett Brothers
Murder in the City
Kick Drum Heart
Down with the Shine
Pretty Girl from Cedar Lane
Paranoia in Bb Major
Slight Figure of Speech
Will You Return
I Killed Sally’s Lover
Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise
Go to Sleep
I and Love and You
And It Spread
Talk on Indolence
Show Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes