The Avett Brothers
June 23, 2012
The Greek Theatre, Berkeley
Better than: Nearly every other folk-rock family act you'll see this year.
North Carolina's Avett Brothers, arguably the most ubiquitous folk rock act in the country right now, kicked off the Greek Theatre's summer season on Saturday. The band, led by brothers Scott and Seth, are fresh off their second Conan O'Brien stint and have completed three months of a tour that has taken them into the Ozarks and (twice!) through the Deep South. Although Berkeley seems a rather far-flung place for the Avetts to find their core audience, Saturday's fans greeted the band with a warm reception.
Scott and Seth's project has been on the forefront of the latest American roots revival. Their 2011 Grammy Award performance, part of an ill-conceived Americana suite with Mumford and Sons (who aren't even American) and a disengaged Bob Dylan, nevertheless cemented the ongoing recognition of American trad-rock (or at least woke up all those people who bought into the Soggy Bottom Boys a decade ago). The band has made friends with celebs like NBA star Dirk Nowitzki, who made a stage appearance at a recent Avetts show in Texas (and who also isn't even American). And the band's ample following on the Left Coast made itself known Saturday, engaging in obedient singalongs, clapping along to the beat, and otherwise signaling general fanboy/girl euphoria.
That's partly because the band members themselves act pretty chaotic, and not in a stereotypically hoedown-y way. These guys are actually kind of punks. The sibling vocalists' default mode is of harmony, but neither shies away from screaming their point across. Cellist Joe Kwon plays is instrument from a standing rather than sitting position, but really he doesn't so much stand as waltz his cello, lurching it sometimes halfway across the stage as he grinds the bow into the strings, a head of hair like an '80s Kirk Hammett flailing all over. Their openers "Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise," and "The Fall" carved a path somewhere in the space between Nashville, Liverpool, and the hardcore punk circuits of 80s D.C.
Of course, the band never strays too far from their roots -- Scott's weapons of choice are banjo and acoustic guitar -- and the band makes ample use of a stripped-down sound. Kwon and drummer Jacob Edwards received regular breaks as the Avetts and stand-up bassist Bob Crawford went in on lighter numbers. Even without their percussionist, however, the band played off hootenanny-style rhythmic tricks, with Scott setting up a little kick drum and Seth a hi-hat as literal indicators of their music's toe-tapping appeal.
The crowd of course ate it up. The singalong volume during "Paranoia in B Major" and "I And Love And You" indicate the level of audience familiarity with the group's work, which is helped by the band's lyrical affability. The guys are upfront and quite funny with their storytelling, spinning whimsical yarns about being angry inebriates and musing on which brother was loved best by their parents. As the Avetts' encore wound down to "I And Love And You" and "Distraction #74," couples drunkenly slow-dancing at the top of the knoll at the Greek, sleepy Cal girls bootlegging the show from a University building, I thought of the old joke: if you play a country and western song backwards, you get back your wife, your house, and your dog. I think that if you play an Avett Brothers song backwards, you lose your buzz.
Good timing: "Kick Drum Heart" features the lyric "We're walkin' into the fields / We're walkin' into the forest / The moon is before us," which proved quite timely during the performance at the west-looking Greek. The moon on Saturday, just a sliver of a waxing crescent, streaked across the evening sky behind the band like a slow shock wave, the sort of little detail that overly sentimental people will remember for a decade.
Sponsor: Saturday's folkstravaganza was sponsored by the Northern California Bluegrass Society, a volunteer organization that promotes local bluegrass and related events in the area. The group's next event at the Greek features the String Cheese Incident on July 14. No offense to "Cheesers" (a nickname for String Cheese Incident fans that I just made up), but they may have already missed the trad-rock event of the summer.
Opener: Local boy Jackie Greene kicked off the night with a solid set of smoky singer-songwriter tunes. Greene hails from down 101 in Salinas, and has called Sacramento his home for the last decade. The sort-of hometown crowd came out in force Saturday, filling the pit early and coaxing Greene out for a rare opener's encore.