Last year marked the 10th anniversary for The Avett Brothers as a New Year's Eve party band, a tradition that began when the trio were little more than regional successes from Concord, North Carolina. They stayed that way for a while, too, playing three consecutive years at Charlotte's 950-capacity Neighborhood Theatre. And then the great ascent began.
In 2007, the Avetts issued Emotionalism, their first popular breakthrough. By year's end, they shifted to a theater with a capacity beyond 2,000. The steady escalation of these shows has offered incremental benchmarks for the Avett's wider success. Two years later, for instance, came their major-label deal for I and Love and You, their debut with legendary producer Rick Rubin and American Recordings. They spent two consecutive sold-out New Year's Eves in the 7,500-seat Asheville Civic Center. For the next three, they took the show to arenas and coliseums.
This New Year's Eve, The Avett Brothers—a band whose earnest lyrics and wild stage presence is, for many, now synonymous with North Carolina music—bring that celebratory show to the state capital. They'll play the biggest room around, PNC Arena. No longer a modest trio, they're now a seven-piece band that has accompanied Bob Dylan and spent the last several years selling out enormous shows and headlining large festivals across the country.
Bassist Bob Crawford has been around nearly since the start. Despite the rise to fame, his journey as an adopted Avett hasn't always been easy. In 2011, his 2-year-old daughter, Hallie, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He took some time away from the band to be with his family. She currently shows no signs of cancer, and he's now back in the fold full-time.
Crawford spoke about the Avett's long-running string of year-end parties, as well as the growth of the band and their current sessions with Rubin.
INDY: This is the 11th consecutive New Year's Eve show for The Avett Brothers. Who first had the idea?
BOB CRAWFORD: If you're a musician, that's a night to work. In that way, it felt very natural to do it close to home. You're around for the holidays. Everybody's throwing a big party for New Year's Eve, why not us too, right?
We've done them in Charlotte, Asheville, Greensboro and Greenville, South Carolina. We try to keep it close to home, but we also try to mix it up. This will be the first one in Raleigh.
Your earlier shows earned so much attention because of the combination of intimacy and energy. As the band has gotten bigger, you've moved on to arenas, now including the PNC. How do you work to regain some of that intimacy?
It's a challenge to keep the intimacy and play a bigger room. When we first started playing bigger rooms, it was awkward. It took some adjusting, but now we've been playing bigger rooms for the past seven years, probably.
We've grown as a group. We've got seven people on stage now, where we used to have three. There are other ways to make the room smaller—staging and lighting to mitigate the size of the room. But I think we have a sound now that can expand to fit that large a room.
Avett fans travel from across the country for these New Year's Eve sets. What makes them so special?
It's the culmination of the year. We like to feature what we've been doing. We go through these phases where we'll play certain songs. Certain songs get hot, and then other songs get hot. We've got over a hundred songs to choose from in our repertoire, so they don't all make it in. In the course of a year, you may start the year playing one group of 25 to 30 songs and end the year playing a different group of 30 songs. For the New Year's show—one thing that we should do for ourselves as well as everybody else—is recap the year, to take all the combinations of songs that work so well together or the cover songs that worked well throughout the year and bring all the best ones.
Also, it's good to do a couple of new things. We've done work on a new album, so perhaps we'll play a song off the new record that we've never played before. We might play a cover song that we've never played before. We've got some special guests. We have a nice little bag full of surprises for people.
What do you hope people at these shows—and all Avett shows, really—leave feeling?
That's up to them. You just hope that if someone's going to spend the time and the money to come see you, they enjoy it. I hope that they they leave there feeling satisfied, entertained. If you can take somebody away from their problems for a few hours, that's priceless.
You've had a difficult few years with your daughter's cancer, despite the continued success of the band. Has this year been better?
It's been a great year for me, personally as well as for us as a band. As far as the band, we added Tania Elizabeth, a full-time fiddle player who is amazingly talented on many instruments. She fills out the band right now. The year was about learning that chemistry among all the players and about seeing what our capabilities were and how many different dynamic combinations of instruments we could get going. We've got a powder keg of sound. Learning how to harness that was a big thing for 2014.
This is the first year that my family didn't have to deal directly with cancer. My daughter [now 5] was diagnosed in 2011, went through treatment all through 2011 and 2012. The cancer came back in 2013, and she went through treatment again. 2014 was the first year of not having to deal with cancer treatments. That was amazing.
How did that impact your working life as a touring musician?
I took the better part of a year off; Paul Defiglia filled in for me on bass, and now he plays Hammond B3 organ and piano in the band. I had to be at home through that painful time and the surgeries and the treatment. I wouldn't miss that for the world.
It continues to be a tough road. We go three months and get MRI scans. As of this second, she seems to be doing well. It's something that's never far from your mind. She suffered a lot of brain injury, having the brain tumor and getting it taken out. She's suffered strokes and lost some ability in the right side of her brain. She struggles with certain things we all take for granted, like motor skills. But we seem to be in a good place, and we just try to enjoy the holiday season while it seems like it's going well.
The Avett Brothers released Magpie and the Dandelion in 2013. Is it time for the follow-up?
There's a small chance it comes out at the end of next year. There's a really good chance it comes out sometime in the first half of 2016.
We are currently working with Rick Rubin. It's been a really great experience so far—lot of live recordings, all of us in the same room playing at the same time. Again, it's taking that chemistry that we have found among the seven of us and trying to document it.
What has Rick Rubin taught you?
It's been such a long road of education with him and beside him. We're constantly learning how to hear things, hear music, hear parts, hear feel. Every time I work on a project with him, I'm so much better afterward. I hear things I didn't hear before.
This article appears in print with the headline "Emotional ascent."