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The Top Twenty Quest: The Avett Brothers

When I was in high school, almost every concert I attended was a highly anticipated, heart-fluttering event. I marked my calendars and hyped myself up for just about anyone coming anywhere near me. For example, I was pumped to see Gavin Degraw. I rest my case.

As I put a whole bunch of concerts in the rearview mirror, I realized that some shows I anticipated flopped miserably, while others I attended on the spur of the moment became landmark moments in my life.

This inability to predict who will be good live makes it now mean much more to me when a band puts on a masterful show. This deep appreciation for a truly fantastic set is precisely what motivates me to see as many Avett Brothers concerts as I can.

It’s hard to dislike the Avett Brothers in the first place. The four members are primarily armed with the non-threatening instruments of banjo, acoustic guitar, upright bass and cello. Other instruments make appearances (electric guitar/electric bass/drums/piano), but those are outliers. The band mostly makes its music on unassuming, downhome instruments.

With these sounds at their disposal, they craft pop songs that draw heavily from folk and bluegrass. This is not a particularly groundbreaking sound, except that both of the real-life Avett Brothers (Scott and Seth) have laser-guided senses of melody. Their songbook has such a high level of success that it’s almost unbelievable that they’ve written all of the songs they lay claim to. Many bands struggle to fill a two-hour set without resorting to covers and extraneous junk; The Avett Brothers struggle to cut down their piles of great songs into manageable sets. When one of the Avetts mentioned during the encore that they wished they could play all night for us, it not only seemed to ring true as a sentiment; it probably could have happened if the lights stayed on longer.

Which brings me to the particular set they played on Sunday, September 26, at Coca-Cola Convention Center in Oklahoma City.  After being accosted by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals for an hour (seriously, the two bands had nothing in common whatsoever), the Avetts jumped up on stage and kicked off with “Laundry Room.”

“Laundry Room” contains everything an Avett Brothers tune should have. The song is relatively simple, with a heartfelt vocal melody that invites group singing. The guitar and banjo interact neatly, with the upright bass contributing spine to the song. The cello layers beautiful flourishes, swooping in and out.

The song builds in complexity as it goes. The brothers harmonize on lyrics espousing romantic, but not saccharine, sentiments. A gentle call and response comes in, which translated beautifully to the live setting. Scott Avett (banjo) called, and the several hundred people in attendance responded with Seth Avett (guitar) leading the charge. It was shiver-inducing.

Suddenly, the band broke out into a bluegrass jam augmented by a foot-controlled kick drum and a high-hat (I think Scott was the percussionist, although this excellent video has Seth controlling the percussion). The audience clapped, jumped, yelled and stomped their way through it. I was delighted.

The song set the stage for the rest of the evening, with the Avetts pinballing between poignant sentiments and raucous shoutalongs. Sometimes the two occurred in the same tune, as in “The Perfect Space” and “Kickdrum Heart.” I went bonkers during the latter, because they hadn’t played it at the last show I’d seen them play. It was excellent.

They did not disappoint on either end of the spectrum. Seth Avett especially impressed, displaying a pretty fearsome scream as well a delicate singing voice while performing the fragile “In the Curve” all by his lonesome. The band made sweet harmonies and displayed incredible musicianship, as well as jumping all over the place like a punk band. In one tune, Seth was literally running in place for the entire song.

The Avett Brothers concert formula looks something like this: great songs + strong musicianship + wild stage antics + endurance + genuine appreciation for audience. They put on an absolute gem of a show Sunday, which is a feather in their cap next to the two other great shows I’ve seen them do. They are not to be missed live, period. Seriously.