The Avett Brothers (photo: Joshua Huver)
Making their second career appearance at the Greek Theatre at UC Berkeley, on Saturday, April 30, Americana rock and roll powerhouse group The Avett Brothers continued their hot streak across the country.
Touring in support of the June 24 release of the group’s ninth studio effort since 2002, True Sadness, brothers Scott and Seth Avett were all smiles on stage – unless of course one of them was making a last minute sprint to a microphone from a far off corner of the stage, working to not miss his cue. They were both caught, but never missed their mark.
After all, some of these songs are veritably more than halfway to one thousand set list appearances. Add to that the average gestation period of an Avett Brothers song being three to four years, and you’ve got songs that this band knows like they know the alphabet.
The 22 songs they chose to bring to Berkeley spanned every major release The Avett Brothers has put out except for 2004’s Mignonette and lasted nearly 2 hours including the encore. For the first hour, Scott, Seth, bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon along with violinist Tania Elizabeth, drummer Mike Marsh and Paul DeFiglia on the keys, barreled through 13 songs taking only a single break.
Don’t let the instrumentation credits carry too much weight, however. Part of being onstage with The Avett Brothers means you are a jack of all trades, resulting in plenty of changes between keys, strings and tones. Most of the seven piece touring band adds to the vocal mix as well, further enriching the overall performance and fostering an appreciation for their individual musicianship early on.
Getting started just before 9:15 PM, the band opened with a fun, fast and funny track “Ain’t No Man”, the first song off the new album. But given the crowd response and ability to sing the words back at the band, it’d be easier to mistake it for an older track, having only seen 14 plays since its mid-March debut.
They quickly moved into the kazoo-laden “D Bag Rag”, an up-tempo country-style ragtime tune off of 2003’s A Carolina Jubilee before two tracks from the live album Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions: “Talk On Indolence” made its 532nd set list appearance and crowd favorite, “The Fall”.
Truth be told, for every introductory array of notes that was played, there were the die-hard shrills of plenty of girls (and judging by the pleased expressions on their boyfriends faces) who were about to hear their all-time favorite song (guilty pleasures, too). The cheers that went above and beyond were never over-the-top nor unbearable and always rang in from a new corner of the massive stone amphitheater. It was endearing – every song played was genuinely someone else’s favorite song.
“Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise” from the band’s 2009 huge commercial success I and Love and You bled perfectly into the only cover of tune of the evening, Doc Watson’s “Country Blues” before the band took their first breather between songs.
“Living of Love” from 2007’s Emotionalism slowed the pace down a bit, allowing for a slightly more relaxed (and much needed) instrument change and bow replacement. The fever about The Avett Brothers is no joke. The high-energy showmanship of each member is magnetic and their rhythms are infectious, and with the little amount of time they give themselves to switch songs, I found myself often wondering things like “When did he pick up the banjo?” “Where did that harmonica come from?” “Where does Kwon’s hair end and where does his fraying bow begin?”
Returning again to The Robbinsville Sessions, the always popular “Distraction #74” saw its 469th show appearance. Such a high recurrence is ironic given the song’s message on making a mistake, and repeating that mistake over and over and over again, because this tune has obviously been anything but a mistake for them.
Emotionally heavy crowd sing, clap and sway alongs ensued for the next four songs, including the 504th play of the Bay Area favorite “Laundry Room” which made its debut over the hill in Santa Cruz in 2007, and the single repeat from their first appearance at The Greek in Berkeley: “Satan Pulls The Strings”, an older tune that is slated for inclusion on True Sadness.
13 songs in, the band takes a second break between songs. In fact, it might as well have been a set break because the entire stage emptied, save for the brothers Scott and Seth.
“This is incredible, thank you,” said Scott, reaching into the crowd and pulling out a handmade sign from the front row. “’We just got engaged and all we want to do is watch The Avett Brothers,’ well that sure is good for us!”
The duo proceeded to share a single microphone and serenade the crowd with another tune from the upcoming album, “Fisher Road to Hollywood”. Making its debut in 2014, this was just the 11th play since, having been shelved for all of 2015. Kwon appeared midway through the song for a touch of ultra-emotional cello accompaniment, but as soon as the track was over, Scott and Kwon left Seth for a solo performance of “The Ballad of Love and Hate”.
As Crawford returned to the stage for a throwback trio performance, Scott once again could be found leaning off of the stage and into the crowd – this time returning with a vinyl copy of 2012’s The Carpenter.
“He’s too nice,” Seth remarked about Scott. “I’m not signing it.”
But when Crawford was roped into signing the record, onstage and in the middle of the show, Seth’s feigned reluctance wore fast and he obliged his autograph.
The trio returned to 2007’s Emotionalism with a triple helping of the tracks “I Would Be Sad” as a trio and “Die, Die, Die” into the rarely played “All My Mistakes” with the whole band returned after a 20 minute absence.
During the next track, “Vanity” from the 2013 release Magpie and the Dandelion, Seth led Scott as they made their exit stage left and ventured into the crowd. After maximizing the length of the guitar cable around the inner alley of the theater, Seth got on his knees as eager fans surrounded him and Scott continued his way around the bowl, reentering stage right.
“Y’all look so much better up close,” laughed Seth following the end of the song. “You’ve always been so good to us here in California, thank you.”
A frenzied run through of “Kick Drum Heart” segued effortlessly into “Morning Song” to end the show, not even ten minutes to 11:00 PM. The Greek Theatre’s strict curfew limited the band to a single song encore, but they made it count.
Returning to the stage less than five minutes after exiting, The Avett Brothers played the title track to their smash hit album I and Love and You.
With the next five days off, it was clear upon the close of the show that each and every musician was giving their all-out best effort. As Crawford relayed in an interview with The Bay Bridged ahead of the tour, “people recognize honesty.” There isn’t much room, even on a stage as large as The Greek, to fake that kind of intensity.