Avett Brothers – Asheville Civic Center – Asheville, NC – Dec. 30, 2010
It’s about three-quarters of the way through the Avett Brothers’ set at the Asheville Civic Center Thursday night, when my buddy Chall leans over and says “Five years ago, these guys were playing at Malaprop’s Bookstore for six people.”
Until then, I was just watching a band I’d seen before, doing just fine at what I’ve come to expect from them. It was that simple recollection, though, which pulled me into the present moment.
There I am on some secret upper balcony – above the entire crowd, looking down at approximately five thousand dancing, clapping, fist-pumping, along-singing strangers, a few thousand balloons, and some lovely chandeliers. A couple of friends. We’re the only ones up there. Just us, three chairs, three beers, and an empty balcony.
It was three or four years ago when I saw the Avetts play for the first time at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. There was rain, my friend Lydia and I sat on trash bags, then up and started bouncing about like everyone else.
The last best memory I have of seeing the Avetts was at Sasquatch 2009. I was in the pit, about five feet from the stage, head down, dancing my own ass off. Columbia River Gorge right behind them – easily one of the most beautiful venues I’ve ever seen. It was about halfway through a long, dusty festival day, which I believe started in a cramped press trailer as Mad Rad played a too-early-for-what-they-do set a hundred yards away. I think that may have been the day news broke that Jay Bennett had died.
All this came back as I sat there, in my new town, watching a band I’ve seen play at least a dozen times before. The way five years can change a thing.
In this case, the brothers have become a quintet with drums – a fact which made my face curl at the notion that they’re still playing a kickdrum and a hi-hat up front. Is that a gimmick now? A remnant? Simply another layer?
It was hard to tell, honestly. The sound at the Civic Center being, shall we say, less than stellar. Most of the time, whatever cellist Joe Kwon was doing was pretty much inaudible. Or maybe it was just that we were sitting above the speakers.
I don’t generally like heights, but the view was too good to pass up.
So, it’s a difficult task to tell you how the Avett Brothers sounded this particular night. I can say at one point Seth Avett leaped off the stage and drove the people down front nuts. I believe he had his guitar when he jumped into the crowd, and did not have it when he returned to the stage. Scott stomped around like a steroid-shot wind-up toy, shredding against his banjo. Kwon, lept and sawed that cello in a way which would likely cause Yo Yo Ma to spit his food out. Or applaud. Or both.
But, as tends to be true of an Avett Brothers show, there was some sense it didn’t matter if all the instruments were balanced in the speakers. It didn’t matter that the vocal mics were somehow at once tinny and muddy. If you want to know whether or not the Avetts are capable of hitting the right notes at the right time, flowing through intuitive harmonies, and trading instrumental licks (and they are), then you can pick up an album – or download it, or whatever you do. If you want to party; if you want to dance around like an idiot; if you want to abandon your troubles and connect with something; if you want to watch a couple of guys channel every living ounce of pain and excitement their skinny little cells can muster, then you go see the Avetts live.
Granted, it took some time for band and audience to coalesce this particular night, but this was a homestate crowd. They were bound to be won, and the Avetts had no problem doing the work to get there.
Lord only knows what personal developments have gone down in those guys’ lives since they were playing to those six-strong crowds at bookstores five years ago. But, as their live show seems to attest, there’s little doubt of what kind of role the music has played for them. No doubt the recordings have veered from the stripped-down stringband thing they were doing back then. Sometimes it’s nice to see artists get more options. Indeed, their ’09 release – I and Love and You – was decidedly more polished and produced, more palatable to a larger audience. Here at home – or near it – they’re able to damn near sell out two nights in a row at the Civic Center. Not too shabby.
Those five years have done their thing. The stage is bigger now, the audience more enthusiastic, the venues have secret upper balconies. But, like the bookstore days, it’s apparent the Avett Brothers are still doing little more than following the songs, wherever they might lead.