In what appeared to be a sold-out show, the Avett Brothers opened a double bill at the Savannah Music Festival with a simply spectacular concert.
Playing songs from nigh every one of their nine studio albums, the North Carolina folk-rock outfit created a unique experience for the night's attendees that showcased the heart of the band's talent.
Since the release of "I And Love And You," I've been a fan of the Avett Brothers. That album especially had a lot of influence on me in my early college years. This was my first live experience, and I was, without a doubt, blown away.
There's sometimes a disconnect between the music a band or artist records and what they sound like live. I've been disappointed with bands at live shows before, after being impressed with their records. The opposite, sometimes, is true as well - a band can sound much better live than on tape.
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What impressed me most, from the absolute get-go, was the sheer talent brothers Scott and Seth possess. It's pretty evident that even with Rick Rubin steering the ship of their last four studio albums, these gents have earned every bit of fame they've garnered over the years. I imagine, and this is somewhat evident on their albums with Rubin, that the venerated producer doesn't have to do too much in the studio.
Rarely did they miss a note, even at the times when they were improvising a little around each other. In Do Savannah's interview with Seth ahead of the festival, the lead singer gave a perfect hint as to what the shows in Savannah would be like (and probably most of their live shows these days).
"We're very much students of the Dylan approach," Seth said. "A song doesn't always have to be in one certain form. Maybe when it was written, it worked as a simple acoustic, vocal song. Fifteen years later, maybe it makes sense as a rock song, or a polka, or whatever. We try not to limit ourselves on the newest interpretation of a song. We definitely want to keep it interesting."
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And they did exactly that Thursday with a couple of songs, but also didn't stray too far from the recorded versions of other tracks. "Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise" was one of those pivotal songs in my college years. It cemented a certain level of courage in me during a time of indecision. Along with a lot of music I have no time to write about here, that song and album were catalysts for some major life choices, all of which I have since reflected on with great admiration.
The Avetts' rendition of "Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise" on Thursday was a show-stopper placed right in the middle of a set that meandered between full rock versions of their standards and simple ballads. They dropped the bottom out of the song several times, with fake cadences that only built back into the chorus. They could have done that about 10 more times, and I would have been OK with it.
What I really respect about these two, now that I've had a live experience, is their tendency to keep interpretation of their songs honest even when they are experimenting. They play these days as a seven-piece, backed by a stage full of some really great musicians.
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But they were only a three-piece when they recorded 2007's "Emotionalism." For a live version of what I think is the best track on that album, "Shame," they whittled down the live set on Thursday to just the Avetts and Bob Crawford on double bass, playing the tune almost exactly as it was recorded. They also shaved down the performers to just the brothers for a version of "St. Joseph's" from 2008's "The Second Gleam." Seth played "The Ballad of Love and Hate" all by his lonesome as well, with a little help from the crowd, who pretty much sang the entire song with him.
An organ, drums, cello and violin would fit really well into those songs. It would be easy to add that instrumentation, as a lot of acts will do when revising a live version of a song. But it's so much more powerful in the style in which it was recorded. That ability to be honest and genuine with live takes of your own music speaks volumes to the type of artists these two are. It's not forced. It's honest. It's truthful. Much like the very songs they write. And that's inspirational.
There are 16 days left in the Savannah Music Festival. I am going to have a busy few weeks, but I am having trouble envisioning a better show than this one. I hope I am wrong.
There are only a handful of tickets left for the band's second show Friday night. Scoop them up, someone, and have a good time!
IF YOU GO
What: The Avett Brothers
When: 8 p.m. March 24
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.