The Avett Brothers: Fox Theater, Oakland, CA 07/20/2011

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Photo Credit: Joan Bowlen

The Avett Brothers are one of many roots-based Americana bands to have gained popularity in the past few years. Their rise has been meteoric, but not necessarily in response to their studio albums. Instead, the Avett Brothers have earned the reputation as one of the most vibrant, electrifying and inspirational live acts on the circuit today. This is an important distinction to note, because they’ve genuinely built their career from the ground up, releasing tons of music and touring relentlessly even before 2009’s I and Love and You became such a smash hit. In fact, they’ve officially released half as many live recordings as they have full-length studio albums. Still, cliché or not, the old adage “you have to see it to believe it” is not only apt but imperative for the Avetts. They’re a force full of fire and seemingly boundless energy, and while at times technique yields to passion, their verve for playing to an audience is paralleled by few.

The Avetts Brothers seldom make it to the West Coast in comparison to their number of shows in the Eastern part of the country, but it’s an acknowledged fact by both the band and their fans that the West Coast shows hold special magic because they’re fewer and farther between. Going into the show on Wednesday, July 20, there was already major buzz from rarities “If It’s The Beaches” and “Bella Donna” making it onto the previous night’s setlist. Stakes were high, but with so much palpable positive energy, it seemed that even if the Brothers decided to play a fairly traditional set, the crowd would be pleased nonetheless.

They opened with “Incomplete and Insecure,” the closing track from I and Love and You. Seth slowed down the first verse considerably, which was a great way to get the audience’s attention and for Scott and Seth’s harmonies to shine before bursting into a percussion-driven second verse at tempo. Unfortunately, the sound mix for the first four songs was extremely muddied, making it difficult to distinguish Scott’s banjo. At points the sound was so obfuscated that only the high-pitched drum noises made much of an impression. The messy mix started to grate on the band members too, as they were visibly frustrated before “Talk on Indolence.” All of a sudden, though, the soundboard nailed the levels and brand new song “The Once and Future Carpenter” carried beautifully across the Fox Theater, with the majority of the crowd hushed to take in the novelty of the song.


Photo Credit: Joan Bowlen

The real highlight of the evening was Scott and Seth’s solo take on The Gleam’s “Find My Love.” Standing both around a mic at center stage, a single spotlight cast down in stark minimalism. It was hard to hear Seth at first because the audience was so rowdy from the rollicking, joyous “Cedar Lane” that came before, but then after a few exclamations of surprise, they hushed to hear the song, which the Avetts stated was the premiere for a live audience. It’s a markedly different sounding song from anything they’d played previously, demonstrating their dextrous hand at crafting a wide variety of melodic constructions. While their voices were audibly tired at points from the evening’s high energy set, making their harmonies somewhat pitchy, the spirited heart of the performance shone through.  

It’s this vocal shakiness that sometimes bears pointed criticism at the Avetts for favoring form over function in their live performances; however, what one must realize is that while not technically perfect, the Avett Brothers never put anything less than 110% into their shows, and at some point critics must recognize intention and response moreso than unerring skill. What the Avett Brothers may lack they not only compensate for but they actually use their weaknesses in such a way that is wholly relatable, compelling and innovative for their sound. There are few acts who can transform, or even adapt, flaws into something engaging, and yet the Avett Brothers do it without pretension or artifice. Thus, “Find My Love” became even more lovely, regardless of any pitchy moments, and turned out to be a song deeply impressed on the memories of the attendees.

The rest of the show drew heavily from I and Love and You and kept the tempo up and rocking. The band seemed buoyed by the response to “Find My Love,” and Scott and Seth attacked their harmonies with élan and zeal. “At the Beach” had a great Paul Simon vibe going on, with a whistled intro over cheerfully strummed banjo and guitar. It was especially nice to have a break from the drums, with Bob Crawford laying down a steady bass line on his acoustic upright. It’s also worth noting that the Avett’s touring band is a fantastic complement to the Brothers’ sound. Joe Kwon approaches the cello like it’s a fusion of percussion and strings, vacillating between the right amount of melodrama and restraint. Jacob Edwards on drums never gets ahead of himself or ostentatious with his drumming, but rather provides rhythm in a way that elevates the songs without detracting from their acoustic foundations.

Another highlight of the evening was Scott Avett’s solo rendition of their hit “Murder in the City.” Perhaps trained from “Find My Love,” the audience quieted down considerably from the beginning of Scott’s singing. A deeply personal song with a stunning melody, Scott’s unadorned manner and vocal delivery was honest, genuine and poignant. Albeit short, this vignette into what lies at the heart of the Avett Brothers’ work was invigorating.

Closing out the show with the rambunctious “Kick Drum Heart” and I and Love and You title track had the audience singing along with lively fervor, and the encore set capped off an excellent two hour set at Oakland’s Fox Theater. For a crowd that doesn’t get the chance to experience the Avetts nearly as often as they’d like, it was a touching and stirring evening, with beautiful synchrony between band and audience. Oftentimes hype way exceeds the result, but in the case of the Avett Brothers, it really is a act you have to see and experience for yourself, because you sincerely won’t regret it. Here’s to next year’s West Coast tour!

Setlist:
Incomplete and Insecure
Tin Man
Distraction #74
Talk On Indolence
Once and Future Carpenter
Prettiest Thing
Pretty Girl From Cedar Lane
Find My Love (Scott/Seth solo)
And It Spread
Shame
At The Beach
Go To Sleep
Never Been Alive
January Wedding
Murder in the City (Scott solo)
Kick Drum Heart
Colorshow
I and Love and You

Encore:
Head Full Of Doubt, Road Full Of Promise
Get Off On You
Laundry Room

Photo Credit: Joan Bowlen

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