Music, Ping Pong, and Faith in Humanity: On Tour with the Avett Brothers
I’ve been trying to write this article about what it’s like being on tour with The Avett Brothers for six months. It’s not that I have nothing to say. Quite the opposite – I’ve got pages and pages of material. What’s been holding me back is a phenomenon that I’ve witnessed with almost every member of the band and crew. There is a protectiveness around the core members of this band that I’ve never felt in any other project that I’ve been a part of, fueled equally by the integrity that Scott, Seth, and Bob project and by the obsessiveness that some of the fans that follow them exhibit.
People have asked me how I got this gig, and I think the fact that we have known each other peripherally for so long helped immensely.
I have vague memories of the first few times my former band, The Duhks hung out with the Avetts, almost a dozen years ago. As I remember, we got along quite well every time we ran into each other. The first time I really listened to them play was in some dirty little rock club. We – The Duhks – opened, and when the Avetts started playing, just the three of them onstage, I couldn’t believe the unrelenting energy they generated and the enthusiastic response from the crowd. It was truly like nothing I had ever seen.
It’s more than difficult to keep a band together for even a couple of years, and it’s near impossible to build a team of people you trust around said band. But, the Avett Brothers have had the same tour manager since they started, 13 years ago. They have kept the same manager and booking agent during that time. This, people, is the stuff of legends. This just does not happen, especially not these days.
They have built a team of people that they trust – people who are excellent at what they do but don’t have big egos around it. I’m sure that Malcom Gladwell would have a field day pointing out everything that led to the success of these outliers called The Avett Brothers.
I feel very blessed to be part of this band, and I feel that it’s important to note that, while some of the fans can be obsessive, many of them are incredibly sweet. Several of them have come out and supported Buffalo Stack and The Stacks – two musical projects that my husband and I have together. They have gone out of their way to share that music with the rest of the fans. There are also fan groups that act as forums to share news about their own lives, to support each other through hard times, and to celebrate the good as it comes. In some ways, that is the most beautiful part of this whole phenomenon.
It’s like the Avetts sing in “Salvation Song”:
We came for salvation
We came for family
We came for all that’s good that’s how we’ll walk away
We came to break the bad
We came to cheer the sad
We came to leave behind the world a better way
So, given all of that, I asked fans what questions they wanted answers to. Below are my answers:
Who is really the best ping pong player?
While it’s true that the guys travel with a ping pong table and play whenever the backstage space is large enough, I can’t tell who the best player is. I know Scott, Seth, and Joe are all quite good, and that Dolph, the band’s manager, is also quite formidable.
How do you spend the time on the road – eats, games, diversions, laughs, quiet times, writing, playing?
I spend a lot of time working on things related to my husband’s band Buffalo Stack – working on the website, booking shows for them, creating merch, and doing graphic art work for various musician friends. I also watch a lot of documentaries and practice Yoga. There are two big screen TVs on the bus – one in the front and one in the back lounge, and people can often be found there, watching movies, playing video games, and such.
Do they treat you like one of the guys or if they treat you like “a girl”?
As the only female in the entire touring group, I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s been surprisingly easy. I have a lot of experience touring with guys and can usually appreciate their brand of humor. Having said that, they are aware of me and I feel a certain level of protectiveness – as if I had suddenly acquired around a dozen big brothers. They’ll tell a dirty joke one moment, but then they’ll hold the door open for me the next. I feel very safe. We are all watching out for each other. Everyone’s well-being is taken into account as much as possible.
Who is most likely to ride up in the passenger seat on trips, keep Scotty the bus driver company, and just take it all in – the beauty of this great country as the wheels roll down the highway…
John, the monitor engineer, can often be found in the “buddy” seat up front. Travis will also spend time up front. I’ve done it a handful of times and it is indeed a beautiful way to see the country.
What is pre-show like for you all? What goes on just before you hit the stage? Does anyone get nervous?
The crew starts setting up the stage early in the morning. After five or six hours of work, they are ready for our soundcheck. We soundcheck onstage for about 2 hours, eat dinner – which is catered – and then play music backstage and get dressed for the show. Before we go onstage, we all huddle together in a go-team kind of way. I doubt that anyone gets nervous.
After the show, Scott, Seth, Bob, and Joe will leave the venue immediately (though fans waiting outside never believe us when we tell them that). The rest of us musicians take longer, putting our instruments away and packing up all our stuff. The crew continues to work for several hours, disassembling the stage and packing it into the trucks. They are usually greeted on the bus with food – usually pizza and chicken wings. We usually leave town sometime between midnight and three in the morning to go to our next show. The drivers sleep during the day at a hotel so that they have the energy to drive at night.
How do you stay so energetic with all the traveling?
Being able to sleep while being transported to the next town is the biggest factor. Exercising every day also makes a gigantic difference. I also have a healthy diet and take vitamins. Beyond that, the fans give off an enormous amount of energy every night.
What do the spouses do to keep everything moving along?
I’ve often wondered what it is like for the spouses of people who tour for a living, especially those with children. I know they work very hard to keep everything together, and that a support system is crucial with one parent being gone so much of the time. I’ve met quite a few of the band and crew’s families, and they seem to appreciate the fact that their touring family member is indeed hard at work and not on some glamorous, perpetual vacation. That’s an important distinction, as it can lead to resentfulness quite quickly if you think your significant other is out there having the time of their life while you work yourself to exhaustion at home. It’s also obvious that the people on the road respect and appreciate all the work being done at home. The vibe in this group is very family-friendly. When we’ve done three nights in one location, spouses, children, and grandparents come out and backstage feels like a multi-family reunion.
What’s it like on the stage? What do you see? Do you see the joy? Do you see all of the emotion?
Depending on the lighting, sometimes I can see quite a ways back and other times I can only see the first two or three rows. It is a beautiful sight – people singing along passionately, holding hand-made signs, laughing, crying. It’s incredible. My favorite moment is when we stop playing and the audience sings, especially on “I & Love & You.” They look so pure at that moment, like little kids during story time. All the adult worries are suspended in that moment and their faces beam. I always feel a big wave of love for the audience at that moment. It’s a reminder of humanity’s basic goodness.
I know you are burning up the road. Buffalo Stack has just released a CD, plus you’re newlywed. Where do you see yourself in the future?
That is a great question. There are so many possibilities for the future. My hope is that Buffalo Stack is discovered by many people and that a sustainable business is created. Truly, now is such an amazing time that I hope this “honeymoon phase” has some serious staying power. I love my home life and I love my work life.
If you could make a change in the world, what would it be? What artist has brought you the most inspiration?
One big change would be to figure out how to get this tour to be as “eco-friendly” as possible. Touring can be quite wasteful, but it doesn’t have to be. It just takes a shift and a learning curve to get to a more sustainable pattern. In that vein, Bonnie Raitt is a huge inspiration for me. Musically and environmentally, she has paved a trail for all of us. And, as a woman, she has set an impeccable standard for the rest of us to strive toward.
Who has the most shoes?
I’m pretty sure that would be Mike Marsh, but I am a close second.
Tania Elizabeth is a Grammy and Juno Award-winning fiddler who has played with the Duhks, the Avett Brothers, and with her husband as a full band (Buffalo Stack) and duo (The Stacks). Below are streams of Buffalo Stack and Elizabeth’s solo work.