Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Cumberland County Civic Center, Portland, Maine
Ken is seeing more music in 2014 than I am! And he has two small children, so I have no idea what my excuse is. I think I’ve been hibernating this winter, and even the 45 minute drive to Portland has seemed like a genuine trek given the darkness of the season. Today is the first day of spring, though, so I expect all that to change soon. Here’s another beautifully written post by my dear friend and comrade-in-music, Ken Templeton. Thanks, Ken! I feel like I was right there with you!
It’s pretty hard to overestimate how much The Avett Brothers’ music means to me. I remember sitting at Chumley’s with a friend many years ago, telling him that I’d been casting about for new music. “The Avett Brothers,” he said. “They’re bluegrass-with-muscle.” I’ll confess that I didn’t go to the music store: I went to Napster. I stole a few songs like At The Beach and Old Wyom. Within a few days, I was at Bull Moose, cleaning them out of the few Avett Brothers discs they had in stock. But it was seeing them live that made me really love this band. Their passion, vulnerability, and joy for music have made Avett Brothers concerts some of the best experiences I’ve had as a music fan.
It was great to see them again (for the fifth time) last Monday at the Civic Center. I first saw them years ago at the Trocadero (a place I used to see The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and The Toasters and The Bouncing Souls play when I was in high school). The Troc is a great little club, a little smaller than the State and there really isn’t a way to replicate that intimate experience in an arena. But the Avetts’ energy is infectious and capacious, and more than fills a room – even a big one.
They started out with Shame and Die, Die, Die, both off of Emotionalism. Shame is so much fun – great song to get a crowd of people belting out: “Shame / Boatloads of shame / Day after day / More of the same.” They followed these up with Talk on Indolence, a ripping stomp of a song that is usually featured in the beginning of their sets to draw everybody in. It’s from Four Thieves Gone and I think represents some of the different musical influences on this band: the banjo is strong and driving, there’s some punkish screaming, the song begins as a rap (sort of), and the tempo goes from all-out frenzy to drunken slowness and back again. While it’s hard to say that there is one song in the Avetts’ catalogue that captures them, this one might be it.
Ketch Secor joined the band for Thank God I’m a Country Boy. Ketch is probably the only guy in music who can make Scott Avett seem somewhat subdued. It was fun to see them play together. He can rip on the fiddle and his back-and-forth with Seth on the guitar was a blast.
Live and Die and Laundry Room came next. I was really hoping for Laundry Room. (They kicked off that show at the Troc years ago with it, and I clearly remember being transfixed.) That tune just has so many great lines – for me, it’s all about this verse: “Last night, I dreamt the whole night long. / I woke with a head full of songs. / I spent the whole day; I wrote ‘em down, but it’s a shame. / Tonight I’ll burn the lyrics, cause every chorus was your name.”
At this point, I was pretty sure they’d play something off their new album, Magpie and the Dandelion. Nope. They jumped into a breakneck version of Old Joe Clark with a slow, slow, slow interlude of The Roving Gambler, back to an even faster OJC. OK, now something from Magpie. Nope. Distraction #74, from Four Thieves and then At The Beach. I love At The Beach. Not only was it an introduction to me for this band, but it evokes, for me, rolling down your car windows and cranking the volume on this tune and giving the accelerator a little more shoe. “I know that you’re smilin baby, / I don’t even need to see your face. / Sunset at the shoreline / We are laughin, breaking up, just like the waves. / Are you feelin, feelin, feelin what I’m feelin – like I’m floating, floating / Up above that big blue ocean. Sand beneath our feet / Big blue sky above our heads, no need to keep / The stressin from our everyday life on our minds / We just had to leave all that behind.”
At this point, my dogs are barkin. There hasn’t been reason at all to sit down and take a load off. The whole show has been stunning. And then they kick into Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise, which has to be one of the great descriptions of willing yourself to believe, despite what all the evidence might point to: “There was dream / And one day I could see it. / Like a bird in a cage, I broke in / And demanded that somebody free it. / There was a kid / With a head full of doubt / So I screamed til I died / And the last of those bad thoughts was finally out.” This song, and others like it off I and Love and You (like The Perfect Space) used to feature a lot of instrument-switching for the band – Seth would jump on the drums while Scott went to the piano. Now they have a full band, with Joe Kwon on cello, Mike Marsh on drums, and Justin (?) on organ, and the sound on songs like Head Full of Doubt rises to meet the grandeur implied by the lyrics.
11 songs in, they played Another is Waiting, the single from Magpie and then Skin and Bones, which is one of the great little gems on the new album. I was shocked that it was over an hour into the set before they played any new songs. But one of the great things you can see if you look at the Avetts’ set lists is that they really are different each night. Of the 26 songs they played in Pittsburgh, two nights prior to Portland, 11 were played again in Portland. (Looking at that list, it seems like they did include a few songs that feature just Scott and Seth, which didn’t happen at the Civic Center – that aspect of their show is usually so wonderful and I definitely missed it. There was an extended stage into the audience, and I thought that there would be a lovely little three or four song mini-set of the two of them on songs like When I Drink, Ten Thousand Words, Murder in the City, and Tear Down The House.)
Salina is one of my favorite Avett Brothers tunes – the one I used to introduce the band to my friend Max Garcia Conover (see here and here for Bree’s reviews of Max’s recent shows) – and it was fantastic. “Cleaveland, I ain’t never felt nothin’ so strong. / Been believin’ the words to my songs, / Ohio, I’m leaving. Ohio, I’m gone.” This video of Salina is awesome – it’s over in Glasgow, Scotland and when Seth sings the bridge, a lovely Scottish lass yells “sexy bastard” at him, making Scott kind of laugh, trying to sing, “Poughkeepsie, hang up the telephone.” And, while we have a minute, how many bands can throw Poughkeepsie into a song?
I and Love and You was, as it always is, rousing and beautiful and spiritual and gorgeous. Seth on the piano and Scott leading the crowd through chorus after chorus: “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in. / Are you aware the shape I’m in? / My hands they shake, my head it spins / Oh, Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in.” In the past, I have seen them end shows with this song, so it was interesting to see it here, and I think that it probably doesn’t work as well in the middle of a set – it seems like it either has to come at the very beginning or very end. It would be a great opening song, I think. To some degree, I felt like there was a four-song lull after “I and Love and You,” and I think at least part of that is this is a hard song to follow up.
They followed with Pretty Girl from Chile, a song I like, but is harder to engage with in concert, I think, because it leaps through the gamut of the band’s musical influences and expressions: it starts like a fairly standard country-ish tune: “I’m no more than a friend girl / I can see that you need more. / My boots are on my feet now / My bag is by the door.” But then it goes all flamenco (Seth’s guitar on this was spectacular), then heavy, driving, power-chord electric guitar, then hilarious answering machine message. Each part of the song was good, but it seemed like crowd had a hard time following the progressions. The next three songs are ones that I just don’t dig as much: The Fall, then Vanity, and Never Been Alive. All fine songs, but The Fall has always been a bit uninteresting to me, lyrically speaking, Vanity is my least favorite song on Magpie and Never Been Alive is a song from Magpie that just felt too slow for this part of the show. I sat down and took a rest at this point.
Paranoia in B-Flat Major and Go to Sleep ended the show – two really fun songs to sing along to and stomp around. Both songs are from Emotionalism and are kind of quintessential Avett songs, with a good amount of dissonance between the upbeat music and lyrics that explore some very challenging emotions. In Paranoia, Scott sings, “There was a time I could move, a time I could breathe / With crowded spaces filled with angry faces, it didn’t once cross my mind / With paranoia on my heels, will you love me still / When we awake and you find the sanity is gone from my eyes?” The crowd sang with Seth on Go To Sleep as he led a call-and-response of “La la, la la la la.” There was plenty of laughter, on stage and in the crowd, as he climbed out of our range into his own high notes that were barely squeaks.
The encore was stupendous. Old Crow Medicine Show joined and they tore through Fireball Mail before leading the audience in a really fun version of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, with Scott, Ketch, and Seth taking turns singing verses.
Then, Seth, who normally hits all the high notes, comes out with: “Doh, doh, doh, doh,” in the low register and we all start singing “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight.” It was sweet and fun, and if you were there and weren’t singing, then you’re a cynic. I guess there are worse things to be, but not at an Avett Brothers show!