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The Avett Brothers ring true

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For the big shows, The Avett Brothers roll out the extras: During a New Year’s Eve extravaganza two years ago at Charlotte’s Neighborhood Theatre, Scott and Seth Avett invited their father, Jim, onstage to pick a song. A few months before, at a modestly attended festival they organized at Charlotte’s 20,000-seat shed, longtime friends Langhorne Slim and Donna the Buffalo opened. Last June, in front of an overflowing crowd at the N.C. Museum of Art, more family members made it to the stage. Raspy troubadour Paleface even joined the band for “Go to Sleep.”

But last night, in front of a sell-out crowd of 7,000 at Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre, there were no guests, no openers and very few surprises. Instead, the band—touring as a quartet with cellist Joe Kwon—stuck only to its songs, performing more than two dozen of them during a fitful, sweaty, 150-minute victory parade.

The usual Avetts agenda—instant dynamic somersaults, boisterous crowd sing-alongs, plainspoken onstage gratitude—held true: They didn’t change a thing. They simply played and said thanks.

In that sense, the show felt like a trial run for the sort of crowds that may come sooner rather than later. After signing a deal with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings last month, the Concord, N.C., band’s steady marathon to modest fame could become a sprint to real stardom. In a year, a crowd of last night’s size could be less a homecoming heroic than a new, nightly ritual. This trial, then, was a near-complete clinical success.

The most remarkable aspect of Saturday night’s show may be the workmanlike, do-what-must-be-done approach with which the Avetts treated the throng: Sure, the band was nervous, aware of people chanting their name 30 minutes before showtime. Backstage, Bob Crawford anxiously tapped his black leather boots against the wooden floorboards, while Seth Avett, dressed in a crisp seersucker suit, squeezed his wife, Susan. “You’re going to make it,” she reassured him. He sighed, smiled and kissed her blond hair.

Click for larger image • Avett T-shirts, Avett license plates, high fives: same customs, bigger dimensions - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

But older brother Scott seemed preternaturally cool, making sure cousin Wes knew which microphone to speak into as he introduced the band. After that introduction, the Avetts walked briskly on stage and barely looked back the entire night. They opened as a trio with “Shame” and “Please Pardon Yourself” before Kwon joined for a punchy take on “Die Die Die.”

They mixed the old with the unreleased, the sweet with the cynical, the slow with the runaway. “Pretty Girl from Chile” started, as usual, with acoustic instruments. Scott Avett eventually grabbed an electric guitar and Crawford picked up a sleek electric bass, pacing toward the stage apron. Seth Avett and Kwon leaned into one another at center stage, minor cello and guitar licks darting through the humid air. After Seth Avett climbed behind the drums, the band roared into a noise-heavy Southern metal boogie, the lead blues riff and heavy drumming possibly offering the riskiest sonics the pristine Cary amphitheater’s ever harbored. If that was the bait, the perfectly placed switch came via two quiet, gentle acoustic numbers: “Tear Down the House,” “Murder in the City,” from The Gleam II, released earlier this week, and a new tune, “Tin Man.” A set-ending “Go to Sleep” left the mass chanting “La la/ la la la la” so loudly that the drenched band members had to stand in a tight circle as they discussed encore options backstage.

There were, naturally, growing pains: Seth Avett’s guitar was either too loud or altogether inaudible during the first two songs thanks to an electrical short onstage, and tuning in the hot summer air was a constant struggle. But most of the challenges had less to do with the band and more to do with the surroundings. Both during and after the show, many complained the music was too quiet, due to the amphitheater’s policy forbidding anything louder than 92 decibels. That situation was exacerbated by an audience that was often chatty and, in general, well lubed. There was at least one fight, and, when the park emptied around 10:30 p.m., its green lawn and pine straw islands looked slightly like a landfill, littered with wine bottles, crushed beer cans and empty airplane bottles.

Click for larger image • Despite the wide stage, The Avett Brothers played as it always does, huddled on or around a small red rug at center stage - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

But when the crowd met the band in the middle, the feeling was pure electric tingle: As Scott Avett sang the word “Carolina” during the song “Salina,” the audience roared into one big wave of yells that sustained for 45 seconds, even as the music collapsed into a quiet classical outro.

When Crawford took his verse during “Left on Laura, Left on Lisa,” people whooped and screamed: “Yay, Bob!” He grinned. And during “At the Beach,” Seth Avett grabbed a shaker and did a slight hip swivel behind his microphone, staring at a few thousand people doing the same thing. The song sounded much like it has for the last five years, and people responded much as they have for the past five years—smiling, dancing, singing.

It’s just that last night, The Avett Brothers—two brothers from Concord, a bass player they picked up in a parking lot and a cellist they met at a Ribfest—were winning or keeping fans at a rate slightly higher than one at a time.

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