Review: The Avett Brothers; May 10, 2009 at The Belly Up Tavern; Solana Beach

The Avett Brothers

No one likes a gushy reviewer. People want evenhanded critiques that take a band’s flaws as well as their strengths into account. Reviews that seem overly positive wreak of bias and/or ignorance, smack of unchecked fandom, and can diminish the credibility of the reviewer. But, like it or not, this is going to be one of those reviews, because when The Avett Brothers performed to a packed house at The Belly Up on Sunday, it truly was a flawless show.

Backed by Bob Crawford on standup bass and—because no country/folk/bluegrass band is complete without a long-haired, head-banging Asian guy—Joe Kwon on cello, brothers Seth and Scott Avett took to the stage with understated confidence. Their aw-shucks Southern humility dropped no hints as to the stellar performance they were about to deliver but, from the moment they began to play, The Avett Brothers nailed each note with baffling ease and agility.

Though the drum kit at the rear of the stage sat idle for the majority of the set, the songs were so energetic that the lack of formal percussion was barely noticeable. Instead, the only beat accompanying Bob Crawford’s nimble bass playing was the occasional well-placed thud from the kick-drum at Scott Avett’s feet. Scott and Seth adhered primarily to banjo and guitar, respectively, but when one of them did jump behind the drums, they handled the kit with the same effortless dexterity they brought to their primary instruments. Adorning each song with their tight harmonies, the brothers playfully vied for the spotlight in a competition that left every attendee a winner.

The Avett Brothers

Part of The Avett Brothers’ charm is their ability to wrap soul-baring lyrics in a joyful and often witty package. During “Paranoia in Bb Major”, Seth Avett smiled and pointed to his wedding ring—which surely disappointed the legions of enamored women in the crowd— as he sang “But if love is a game, girl, then you’re gonna win / I’ll spend the rest of my life bringing victory in”. The band’s joy in performing was apparent even in their more somber ditties, such as “Shame”—one of the landmarks of 2007’s Emotionalism—and the stripped down, nearly a capella version of “When I Drink”, from 2006’s The Gleam EP, which lost no intimacy despite the enormity of the crowd.

Even the most studied fans were treated to something new, as the band peppered the set with songs from their forthcoming, Rick Rubin-produced album I and Love and You. Those in the crowd worried about the Avetts’ songwriting suffering due to their recent transition from indie darlings to major-label recording artists must have breathed a collective sigh of relief upon hearing the gorgeous “And It Spread”, whose tender refrain made it one of the evening’s most outstanding highlights.

The Avett BrothersAll photos by acornhourglass

Despite the apparent absence of a set list, the Avetts plowed through their two-hour performance with precision, as Crawford’s hyper bass lines and Kwon’s soulful cello helped to expand the down-home compositions into brilliant widescreen. Despite the band’s abundant talent, one of the evening’s finest moments came when they left Seth Avett to perform the symbolism-heavy “Ballad of Love and Hate” by himself. Commanding the crowd’s rapt attention with nothing more than gently finger-picked guitar and his heartfelt vocals, Seth’s captivating delivery surpassed that of the already stunning album version.

Wrapping up the evening with a sing-along of the apropos “Pretty Girl From San Diego” and an encore (“We’d be honored to share another song with ya’ll!”) of “Salvation Song” from 2004’s Mignonette, the Avett Brothers seemed genuinely touched by the crowd’s unabashed adoration. “We love you love you love you!” Seth professed to the crowd through a Cheshire grin. The feeling was clearly mutual.

And, if you do think that’s too gushy, that’s just because you weren’t there.

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