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Go back a little more than a year and a half ago, and I hadn’t even heard of The Avett Brothers. My wife had started listening to their music on the recommendation of a friend, and she found something they’d done earlier on for NPR, maybe a Tiny Desk Concert. I’ll have to look this up. Within a few days, and after a few repeat listens, she was definitely hooked, and so was I. We bought and/or downloaded a stack of their albums, and their tunes were on heavy rotation on the stereo. Their sound is obviously based in Carolina roots music and bluegrass; their core instrumentation – to which they strip down in concert, or else around which they build their band – is a trio of banjo, acoustic guitar and upright bass, played by Scott and Seth Avett and Bob Crawford. Joe Kwan’s cello has also added a key texture to their aural palette since the early days of the group’s existence, and when they perform the four of them tend to position themselves in a line across the front of the stage, Seth and Scott at the centre, flanked by the other two.
We were given tickets to an Avett Brothers concert in June 2012, when they appeared as a headliner for the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. (Their music has little to do with mainstream jazz, apart from a few commons threads in Americana and the blues, but most jazz fest programmers these days rely heavily on non-jazz acts to bouy up revenues and draw in audiences. I actually ended up missing a Wayne Shorter gig to hear their show, but it turned out to be worth it.) We had great seats, a few rows from the stage. From the moment they hit, the energy in the house was through the roof. This was a couple of months, I think, before the release of The Carpenter, and they were testing out some of the more rock-oriented material from that album. It was my first experience of them live, and I have to say that I was unprepared for the exultant, keen and impassioned drive of their performance. They blew us wholly away.
In a recent interview in Rolling Stone, Scott, Seth and Bob talked at length about the band’s evolving sound, positioning them amid what Scott calls “the changing form of somewhere between rock and country and folk.” They refer back to a phrase coined by Scott – “young wonderment” – to describe the tenor of many of their lyrics, their music’s message maybe, but “young wonderment” also encapsulates the impact of their performances on an audience. There are certainly moments at an Avett concert of entrancing delicacy, something of “sparkly-eyed” grace and artful “shine” that their songs often both embrace and disparage: it’s what they want to make happen, but they also articulate a suspicion of being taken in by it, seduced by phony glitter and stagecraft. Still, despite the relentless apologies and self-recriminations in those songs – the admissions of failure and loss that seem pervasively to inform their writing – their performances take up a genuinely hopeful and affirmative trajectory. The youthfulness to which Scott refers isn’t a nostalgia for innocence or naïveté but a raggedly passionate energy. On Thursday night, seeing them for a second time at the Orpheum in Vancouver, I could feel the force of their convictions, their belief in what live music could accomplish. They jumped and thrashed, they caressed and kicked, they stroked and stomped. Sometimes rough, sometimes intimate, they drew from their twangling instruments a tangible sense of commitment, of being right here, in the moment, that moment, giving it whatever they could. The wonderment of the Avett Brothers has nothing to do with passive awe or amazement and everything to do with vitality and vigour, a fierce and embodied poetry. One review noted the “joyful buzz” they produced in the audience emerging onto the street after the show had ended. That feeling, that liveliness, the life-force they and their music seems to offer us as a gift, keeps going.