Martin Stephenson / Avett Brothers – Riverside House Concert (Durham, NC)
On this night, Martin Stephenson didn’t choose to play his lovely song “We Are Storm” from 1990’s Pete Anderson-produced (and recently reissued) Salutation Road, but it would have fit. Courtesy of the format for this house concert, which found the North Carolina’s Avett Brothers playing between Stephenson’s two sets, he and his guitar-playing, dobro-dabbling accompanist Jim Hornsby got to be the calm both before and after the storm.
“Bluegrass” and “reckless abandon” are two things that had never occupied the same thought in my head, but the Avett Brothers quickly changed that. Brothers Scott (banjo and lead vocals) and Seth (flying-fingers guitar and harmonies), along with standup bassist Bob Crawford, stomped through their eight songs, thanks to the piece of plywood Seth used for percussive purposes.
The Avetts are not the first group to play bluegrass with hyperactive energy and a punk-inspired rawness, but with the brothers’ contortions, boisterous harmonies and flying sweat, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were inventing it on the spot. Still, with the delivery of smartly written and constructed songs such as “Girl From Annapolis”, “Me And God”, and “Love Like The Movies” (“real life is more than two hours long,” the tune wisely reminds us), the Avett Brothers made it clear they’re much more than a musical curiosity.
Stephenson’s roots are in the punk echoed by the Avetts. When the movement exploded in the mid-’70s, it was loud enough that he could hear it in his tiny hometown in northern England, and it’s what inspired him to start making music. But Stephenson has met few styles that he didn’t want to take for a spin, resulting in a unique blend of jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, old-time, reggae, rockabilly, Celtic and more. He’s as comfortable quoting Richard Hell or name-dropping Julian Cope as he is finger-picking a tribute to the Reverend Gary Davis or going calypso, and this eclecticism was on full display during his two sets of, in his words, “twisted folk” and “astral punk.”
Stephenson started the second set with an instrumental waltz and capped the night with a ballad from the region he now calls home, the Scottish Highlands. Early on, he reached way back to his first full-length, Gladsome Humour & Blue, for the moving “Me & Matthew”. And on “Every Step Of The Way” and “Orange Is The Colour Of Joy”, he and Hornsby generated as fine a groove as could be summoned from two acoustic guitars.
“Every wayfaring stranger ends up home,” sang Stephenson on his song “Home”. Or, maybe even better yet, in someone else’s living room listening to music that’s both worldly and reckless.