⇒ Read also: Our review of I and Love and You
In September 2007, I sat with my mother in a tiny Thai food joint in Charlottesville, Va. The restaurant connected to the back of the late Satellite Ballroom, where Concord, N.C.'s The Avett Brothers—scheduled to perform there that night—were running through several tunes at soundcheck. During a break in the action, I called out, "You guys mind if we sit back here and listen?"
"Sure," replied Scott Avett, the elder of the two brothers. "Oh, hey man, we haven't seen you around in a while," he continued, smiling warmly.
"He goes to all your shows," insisted my mom, as I did my best to hide my reddening face. Scott laughed and got back to work on the new tune. It was the first time I'd heard the particular song and the first time I'd ever heard them work with piano and a full drum set. Since 2001, The Avett Brothers have pounded out a signature, emphatic and mostly spare sound of banjo, guitar, upright bass, and a hi-hat and kick drum that Seth and Scott Avett would thrash and trash while spilling songs and sweat onto the stage and the tape. So this song sounded different, sure, but not shocking: The band's trademark familial harmonies were still there, working beneath the same heartfelt lyrics and simple orchestration that marked those old banjo tunes, too.
The piano features heavily on I and Love and You, the sixth studio album by The Avett Brothers and their first for American Recordings, a major-label imprint helmed by Rick Rubin, the bearded producer to the stars. Hearing that piano song back in Charlottesville, I should have known change was in store. After all, the key motive behind that Charlottesville trip—part of a two-date jaunt suggested by my mother after she first heard the band just two months earlier—was to experience them in a more intimate setting than they were already demanding back in North Carolina. As people nationwide caught Avettmania, The Avetts were (and easily remain) the biggest band in the state, playing for thousands of Tar Heels, selling more than 200,000 records through a tiny label based in their hometown and influencing a fleet of fellow N.C. bands. Indeed, their national ascension, highlighted once again by the beautiful I and Love and You, continues to offer lots of people an inroad into music made here at home.
Consider the band's Triangle trajectory: In 2005, the trio played its final show at Kings Barcade, the downtown Raleigh institution that closed in 2007. By the time Kings had closed, the Avetts had entertained capacity crowds at Cat's Cradle (just over 600) and the Lincoln Theatre (nearly 900). That summer, the band sold out the amphitheater at the North Carolina Museum of Art, which holds 2,700 people, with an extravaganza that included appearances by family and friends. Splitting a bill with dorm-rock favorites Guster at N.C. State University's Homecoming later that year, the brothers helped draw 4,000 to Reynolds Coliseum. Many fans promptly filed out once the brothers left the stage. And the next summer, over 7,000 Avett fans packed Cary's austere, pine-lined Koka Booth Amphitheatre to listen. It all sort of makes you wish they were a publicly traded company, right?
The Avett Brothers have done this, until now, without the help of a major label, big-shot producer or massive promotional budget. Rather, through the band's songs and the dedication and work ethic of those around them, they've won their audience largely through personal connections—writing songs with which people can identify, touring those songs into any town that would have them and remembering the fans, like me and Mom in the Thai dive, even when the throng started to number into the thousands nightly.
But on I and Love and You, the scream-n-stomp that made Avett fans legion throughout most of this decade gives way to a somewhat lush mix of piano, organ, cello and drums. Still, it sounds like The Avett Brothers—earnest and simple, plainspoken even beneath the pop. Those qualities have always been part of The Avetts' sound, steadily translating across multiple demographics. After I first saw The Avetts in 2005, for instance, I left with a copy of album three, Mignonette. That summer, I set about spreading the good news to my co-workers at a summer camp outside of Fayetteville. By day and night, I was evangelizing for different causes. Sure enough, many of the group—fans of both Christian screamo artists and rootsy traditional music—latched onto the Avetts' energy and honesty.
And during a 2006 show at Greensboro's short-lived Flying Anvil, I found myself standing between an inked-up punk rocker and a couple of octogenarians. High school girls filled the front row, while middle-aged folkies and indie rock kids were scattered through the diverse crowd. It was hard to tell who enjoyed the band more.
Months before that Charlottesville show, I caught an impromptu side-stage gig by The New Familiars at the Appalachian Roots Revival in Boone, headlined by The Avett Brothers. The speakers were blasting the performance through the crowd, and I initially assumed it was a live recording of a new Avett tune. To my surprise, I found the likeminded Charlotte quintet picking and shouting under a tent, a small audience gathered apart from the mass that was waiting for the night's heroes to hit the stage. In their infancy, Greensboro's Holy Ghost Tent Revival took obvious cues from the Avetts (and guitarist Matt Martin is a doppelgänger of Seth Avett), and traces of the fraternal harmonies and smiling warmth line the music of locals Megafaun.
Evidence of their influence shows up outside the usual spheres, too. Last spring, I saw a couple of students at Broughton High's traditional Queen of Hearts assembly hesitantly pluck their way through "Paranoia in B Flat Major," almost two years after watching The Avett Brothers muster all of their confidence while playing the tune for their national TV debut on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Trust this high school teacher when I say that it's tough to get most teenagers to pay attention to local musicians.
While they've rarely opened for bigger bands—last year's stint with Dave Matthews Band notwithstanding—and only occasionally relied on openers to help them draw a crowd, The Avett Brothers have fostered general interest in North Carolina's music scene statewide. Just look at the artists who have opened for The Avetts in North Carolina—Langhorne Slim, the everybodyfields, Paleface, Bombadil—and note the consistently bigger crowds the Avetts offered them by osmosis.
More important, mainstream music fans have been forced to pay heed to homegrown music when the Avetts invade—and sell out—many of the state's biggest venues. It's not that the brothers have crossed over, really. It's that thousands have found it hard to resist those stomped drums and broken banjo strings, and they've crossed over, finding a local microcosm rich with sounds.
This week, it'll be hard for most anyone in this area to ignore or dismiss the country brothers. Avettmania is set for a much larger stage now: On Tuesday, the brothers released I and Love and You, the biggest album of their career, on one of the biggest labels in the world. By noon, it was breaking through the iTunes Top 10. And on Monday, they played The Late Show with David Letterman, performing "I and Love and You" in the biggest (if shortest) set of their career.
And, yes, I stayed up late watching, forgiving Scott's choice to play an out-of-tune banjo instead of drums. So did Mom and thousands of other Carolinians who proudly call The Avett Brothers their own.
Independent Weekly music writer Robbie Mackey will attend an intimate New York release party for I and Love and You with the band Tuesday night. Visit www.indyweekblogs.com/scan to read about it.
⇒ From the archives: "The Avett Brothers ascend"