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New Groove

Published: 2006/08/18
by Mike Greenhaus

The Avett Brothers

If bluegrass and punk-rock had a lovechild, it would most likely sound something like the Avett Brothers. The brainchild of Scott and Seth Avett, a pair of Concord, NC, punks who changed their tempo, the Avett Brothers are quickly earning a reputation as one of the festival circuits’ most promising players. But, while the southeast trio fits snugly next to more traditional festival favorites on stages at Bonnaroo, Wakarusa and moe.down, the Avett Brothers have migrated to Tent City from very different pastures.

Brothers Scott and Seth Avett began playing professionally together in their teens, earning a dedicated local following with their noise-rock band Nemo. Though bluegrass and old-time music had always been a reference point for the Avetts, who grew up in North Carolina, the teens initially settled on a sound that found a comfortable middle ground between the Violent Femmes and more hard-nosed rock-and-roll bands. In 1998, Scott Avett began exploring his acoustic interests in a more public setting, busking at local bars and bluegrass watering holes. An early encounter with Doc Watson helped spur Seth Avett’s interest in the traditional American art-form and, soon after, the younger Avett joined his brothers’ informal gigs, which the duo began calling, alternately “The Back Porch Project” and “Nemo Downstairs.” At the time, Nemo’s future was on the rocks, ultimately, leading an emotional breakup around Halloween 2001. Eager to continue playing music, and somewhat desperate for money, the Avetts returned to their acoustic music with renewed vigor, writing a new batch of songs which reset their school of rock sounds in an Americana context. After gigging around the southeast as a duo, the Avetts recruited upright bassist Bob Crawford and, in early-2002, entered the studio to record Country Was, which was quickly written to fill the trio’s first studio sessions. With Crawford handling bass duties, Seth Avett focused on acoustic guitar, while his brother jumped between banjo, harmonica and a variety of quirky percussion sounds. All three shared vocal duties. Almost immediately after, the Avett Brothers clocked onto the road, hitting 11-states in just two months.
“Touring and writing, it’s always ongoing for us,” Seth Avetts says during a brief break from the road in early-July. “Our normal way of doing things in writing songs and then developing them out on the road. On that first tour we were developing songs for our first album. We stayed at campgrounds because that’s all we could afford. We would write songs near our tents and develop them by the campfire. We still write on the road, only now there is better technology. People will tape our shows and, before we get home, our tabs will be on the Internet.” The results of the trio’s first extended tour manifested themselves in the group’s first proper studio album, A Carolina Jubilee, which was recorded over a 70 hour period.
Despite their unorthodox sound—-which blends high-range vocals, sarcastic humor and pastoral sounds into a single statement, The Avett Brothers became a must-see attraction at some of the bluegrass communities most revered gatherings, including MerleFest and FloydFest. “MerleFest has been great for us,” Seth says. “We will stay there for three days and songwriter workshops with fans. People actually wanted to learn about our type of songs. This year we played the Watson Stage. It was an honor, and very exciting, to play a song like “Talk on Indolence”, which is fairly erotic for that type of stage, and have people enjoy it”
Admittedly, the Avett Brothers’ early live show was loose affair, as the trio worked to define its sound. And, while the Avetts have worked hard to refine their song-structures, the trio is purposely spontaneous on the stage. “In order to stay exciting for us, we let each night take its own character and have its own life,” Seth says. “We have never made a setlist in the four years we have been playing together. Before we walk on stage we decide the first song and let it go from there. One of us will start a song and everyone else joins in. It keeps us loose.”
In the past two years, the Avetts Brothers have continued their pace, releasing the well-received 2004 studio album Mignonette, a 2005 live compilation and their breakthrough album, 2006’s Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions. The latest disc earned the trio a solid reputation among indie-bloggers and jamband message board posters alike, combining witty lyrics with organic textures. In June, the trio also scored a spot at the fifth annual Bonnaroo Music Festival.
“The thing about was Bonnaroo we was fairly ignorant of the festival until it was on our website and people were like, are you excited, you’re playing Bonnaroo?” Seth jokes. “As it got closer, there was definitely a build up. Then we heard we were going to be playing after Radiohead. About 1,000 people were there and 30 to 40% knew the words to our songs. In the past month, people everywhere we’ve gone, people have told us that they saw us there. We were definitely building towards that place.”

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