Contributing Writer : Anna Whalen
Contributing Photographer : Tiffany Spohrer
VIDEO : compliments of RFWtv SUMMER CAMP 2008 PART I FEATURING THE AVETT BROTHERS – “COLORSHOW” & “MURDER IN THE CITY”
September 22, 2009
The Avett Brothers—9/20/09—Bama Theatre
The Avett Brothers add splash to dry Alabama Sunday
You know you’re in Alabama when you order a beer with dinner, and the waiter grins and says, “Y’all aren’t from here, are you?” I thought to myself, “No. I’m from New Orleans, where I could order beer with my breakfast.” It was Sunday when alcohol sales are prohibited throughout Tuscaloosa County. The question arose: should we make the twenty-mile drive to Jefferson for a bottle of wine? We (my photographer Tiffany and I) had already been in the car for nearly five hours, so another thirty minutes seemed inconsequential. But we were on a road trip with a purpose.
The Avett Brothers show in New Orleans had been cancelled, necessitating the epic journey to Tuscaloosa. More than one hour remained before the opening act was scheduled to start. As I contemplated our options, I recalled the Avett Brothers performances I experienced this summer at Harvest, Forecastle, and Sasquatch Music Festivals; moreover, began to cringe with shame knowing that I had missed the bands first two songs at Sasquatch to shotgun one more beer. I decided that cheap Chardonnay was not worth missing even a minute of the set.
I approached the Bama Theatre as heat lightning flashed over an eager, yet patient, crowd waiting below an illuminated sign that read: “Avett Brothers 9/20—Sold Out!” I stood in line at the box office and eavesdropped as the women in front of me discussed babysitters. “I always like to have at least five I can call, especially for nights like these.” I glanced over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t surrounded by middle-aged parents. There were a handful of them, but the demographic was mostly University of Alabama students.
Fans were enforcing the Avett dress code, adorned in plaid shirts and rolled bandanas tied around their foreheads. Apparently, plaid is the new tie-dye. One fan was particularly noticeable as he bought a sticker from the merch booth. He was wearing Tevas, khakis, a crisp Emotionalism t-shirt, and, of course, a red bandana, but his camouflage outfit did not conceal his age, which appeared to be around ten or eleven years old. Kettler, age thirteen, started listening to the Avett Brothers two years ago. “My summer camp counselors listened to them a lot,” says Kettler, “and then I brought home their CD and my Mom started to love them too.” Mother and son went to an Avett show in Birmingham and were looking forward to seeing them again. “Emotionalism and Four Thieves are my favorite CDs, so I hope they play some of those songs tonight,” says Kettler, as he and his mom stake out seats near the back of the theatre.
The Bama Theatre is a charming historic landmark signified by the comforts of recent renovations. It is well-lit and decorated with framed paintings of musicians, posters of Italian art and classic American movies like Casa Blanca and Gone With the Wind. Popcorn and candy are for sale at the concession stand, along with fountain sodas to quench the dry Sunday thirst of Tuscaloosa County residents. Tiny blinking lights shine on the ceiling of the main theatre like dim stars in a cloudy night sky. The venue has a balcony and floor seats, with a cramped area for the hardcore few to squeeze in front of the stage. A raised crimson curtain towers above the set as the displayed instruments lay waiting to be touched while Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” blasts from the speakers, and the crowd grows restless.
Finally, the band emerges. Scott Avett takes center stage in his signature style – tight corduroy Levi’s, cowboy boots, a grey thermal and brown vest. He opens his mouth to the microphone, and his voice instantly cracks as he begins to sing “Weight of Lies” a cappella. Time moves slowly through the first verse, which is noticeably out of tune. Scott extends his arms to the audience as an offer to sing in unison, and also as a request to support his struggling vocal cords. Joe Kwon on cello and Bob Crawford on bass join in the chorus, making the singer’s discordance more noticeable. Scott begins to adjust his banjo which is also out of key. The band gradually pieces itself together as the song progresses, and then Seth Avett, on guitar, breaks a string. He spends little more than a moment trying to fix it before swiftly removing his strap with an air of defiance, placing his guitar on the ground to belt into the microphone with more intention than before. It was a heavy song to start the set with.
“Thank y’all so much, we can’t explain how happy we are to be here,” says Scott. His raspy voice goes in and out like cell phone coverage in a tunnel, confirming suspicions that he is under the weather. But he is still ready to put on a show, shuffling into “Denouncing November Blue,” a catchy travelin’ tune about love lost to the open road. The audience enthusiastically sings along, compensating for the lead vocalist’s lack of vigor. The room erupts as the song proclaims, “I thought about the people and what they know and wrote a book called people don’t know nothing!” Scott is barely audible as he adds, “No matter what they tell you.”
The band smoothly transitions from the driving alt-country beat into a lullaby sound. A soft instrumental leads into a bittersweet rendition of “Tear Down the House,” with Seth Avett on lead vocals. Scott adds harmony, crooning, “I’m talking about collapsing and screaming at the moon, but I’m a better man for having gone through it.” His weary voice is perfectly suited to this song, making the lyrics more convincing than they could be if his throat was in its normal condition. The effect is dramatic and haunting.
Welcome syncopation arrives with “At The Beach,” a lively, irresistibly danceable tune that keeps the audience clapping in time for the song’s entirety. Energy remains elevated as the band plays “Talk On Indolence,” one of the more fast-paced and raucous Avett Brothers tunes, sometimes noted for its musical allusions to punk influences.
Then the boys introduce one of their new songs, “And It Spread,” the third track on their new album, I and Love and You, which will be released next Tuesday, September 29th. “And It Spread” is straight-up pop rock, featuring Scott on the drums in place of the banjo. If you didn’t know the Avett Brothers, you wouldn’t know they have bluegrass roots from listening to this song. It is a simple, borderline cheesy, medium-paced love tune, and it sticks in your head. Scott exposes his most sincere smile of the night, sitting behind the drums, rocking out, relieved to give his voice some rest. He is revitalized – and it spreads.
The tempo stays upbeat with “Distraction #74,” featuring banjo plucking reminiscent of an Irish reel. “This is a song about doing something bad and learning a lesson. But you keep doing it again and again,” says Seth, commenting on the lyrics’ playful treatment of infidelity. Scott Avett stands onto his kick drum and turns his back to the audience, showing off the brown handkerchief in his back pocket.
The mood turns somber with “The Lowering (A Sad Day in Greenville),” a piercingly beautiful piece about the grip of loneliness and depression. “Pretty Girl From Chile” follows, leading into another new song, “Slight Figure of Speech.”
“Slight Figure of Speech” sounds like elementary, early 1950’s rock‘n’roll found in That Thing You Do. Bob Crawford plays a walking bass line on the electric bass guitar, substituting for the upright bass he usually finesses. The song structure is unoriginal and predictable, but forgivable because it is catchy, and, more importantly, because the Avett Brothers’ other songs do not sound like this. Scott is on drums again, and breaks into hyper-fast lyrics similar to “Talk On Indolence,” pushing his ability to flow. It is not a bad song, although it may incite the fear of abandonment that is facing many long-time fans as the band appears to depart from its roots.
Seth keeps the stage to himself and his guitar with the gentle and sappy “Ballad of Love and Hate.” The rest of the band members Scott, Bob, and Joe, return to stage for an uplifting performance of “Go To Sleep,” leaning their backs into each other like schoolyard friends at play. Massive grins spread across the faces on stage and in the audience. “I was scared to come on stage,” admits Scott, “but y’all are making this awesome.” Seth hops over to the keyboard and begins the dripping chords of “I and Love and You,” the new song that everyone already knows. When they sing, “Three words that became hard to say,” people in the audience raise their three fingers in the air, mirroring Scott, and take down one finger at a time in coordination with each word. “I” and “Love” and “You.”
Next is “Colorshow,” in which Seth leaps from keyboard to his acoustic guitar. Bob and Joe jump up and down embracing their instruments. “January Wedding” is the second track on I and Love and You, and it is a melody that moves straight up and down the major scale with lyrics like, “She knows which birds are singing, and the names of the trees where they’re performing, in the morning.” Oh well.
“The Perfect Space” provided one of the biggest surprises of the show. It begins as a slow tune, driven by thick piano chords and light arpeggios. It continues at this pretty pace through two verses and choruses, accented by a delicate counterpoint between piano and cello, moving smoothly to the bridge. Then, suddenly, Scott sprints to the drums and the song becomes electric, fast-paced, pop-rock! It slows again and returns to the piano-laden chorus. Scott sings, “I wanna have pride like my mother has, and not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad,” and a distinct section of the crowd cheers.
The set ends with the classic audience favorite, “Paranoia in B-flat Major.” The band offers profuse thanks to the crowd, holding their hands to their hearts and bowing forward.
The Avett Brothers make the audience earn an encore. Eventually they return to the stage and the boys exude happiness, while Scott looks exhausted as he props himself onto the keyboard bench. Seth plays drums for the first time this night, as they go through “Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise.” It was a brand new song to me, although I felt like I had heard it before. I realize now that it blurred into “The Perfect Space,” representing what appears to be a characteristic sound of I and Love and You. The Avett Brothers close the set with “Gimme a Kiss,” leaving the audience with the familiar sound of the band they came to see.