While we were waiting for the Avett Brothers to take the stage at the Cabooze Thursday night, I pointed out to my girlfriend that there were not one, not two, but three banjos plugged in and ready for action. She shook her head in admiration. “Shit is going to start on fire!”
We were all the more impressed when the band started playing and it became clear that multiple banjos were necessary not to be played simultaneously, but to insure that there would always be a backup ready when Scott Avett’s fierce strumming began to shred steel strings.
Wikipedia refers to the Avett (pronounced AY-vett) Brothers as a “non-traditional bluegrass band.” It might be more accurate to characterize their sound as acoustic indie rock: bawling melodies and hopping across styles, brothers Scott and Seth Avett are more akin to Joe Strummer and Mick Jones than to Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley.
In concert, both Avetts sing, strum (Scott on banjo, Seth on guitar), and jump on kick percussion pedals. Bassist Bob Crawford completes the band’s core trio; also onstage for most of the evening was Joe Kwon, who sawed at his cello with an apt intensity. When he snapped a string on his instrument, the Avetts—who must have been breaking banjo strings before they could walk—declared that Kwon had officially joined the band.
Bawling melodies and hopping across styles, brothers Scott and Seth Avett are more akin to Joe Strummer and Mick Jones than to Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley.
If you were to become acquainted with the Avetts’ sound through their frenetic live show, you might be surprised at the dynamic spaciousness of their sound on record. Their latest release, last year’s fittingly titled Emotionalism, pulls the listener from beginning to end with the kind of long-form sweep that the age of the iPod is supposed to have killed. The audience at the Cabooze greeted the new material as enthusiastically as longer-standing favorites like “Song Against Indolence,” the 2006 release that comes closest to capturing on record the Avetts’ gleefully unhinged live sound.
As if for ballast, the band is touring with Buckeye State native Jessica Lea Mayfield, a specialist in the sadly beautiful dirge. She commanded attention by delivering lovely vocal performances with an impassive facial expression that left the audience in suspense as to whether she was going to finish her set or say “Fuck it,” drop her guitar, and go out back to have a heater.
Appearing for a duet with Mayfield, a visibly emotional Scott Avett appeared already to be channeling the heart-pounding-on-sleeve energy that would have the brothers’ beards dripping with sweat before they even finished their mid-tempo opener “Shame.” Standing opposite a bank of bright stage lights, we could almost see the steam rising as the Avetts banged their way through two hours of their happily “non-traditional” songs. It’s to our good fortune that the Avett Brothers appreciate that even when it comes to bluegrass music, traditions—like banjo strings—are made to be broken.
Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.