The Avett Brothers and Jessica Lea Mayfield, Rhythm Room, Phoenix, AZ 3/27
Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right. – “Scarlet Begonias,” words by Robert Hunter, music by Jerry Garcia
The Brothers from Another Punk Folk Planet began the West Coast stretch of their latest tour at the Rhythm Room in Phoenix. The heady jaunt to the desert took “driving three whole days to get here tonight,” cracked Seth Avett to the boisterous crowd. The quartet delivered yet another engaging and rigorously intense performance, offering numerous cuts off the critically-acclaimed 2007 release, Emotionalism and a hefty dip into their fine back catalog.
Emotionalism is a taut yet relaxed collection of tunestheir best work to dateand the album effortlessly displays the band’s purpose: witty, confessional tunes wrapped in a very well-crafted patchwork quilt of Americanafolk, country, blues and good ole rock n’ roll “let-the-drinkin-n-shoutin-commence-ma-cause-I-ain’t-sleepin-til-dawn” magic. These songs already carry a classic, mythic quality and the band didn’t disappoint on the first date of the Western leg. Actually, the North Carolina quartetwhich includes Seth Avett on acoustic guitar, drums, and vocals, Scott Avett on banjos, electric guitar, drums, and vocals, Bob Crawford on upright bass, and vocals, and Joe Kwon on cello, act like many bands who eventually turn out to be something worthy of reams of critical praise. They simply played like the gig was either their first huge showcase event or this was the last time they’ll ever get a chance to slam home the goods and no one wants an ounce of regret afterwards. And this is still, after numerous decades of live improvisation, an underrated trait in any band or solo performer. Every gig has something distinctly unique, every town has a different crowd to seduce and every song carries with it a new promise, a new sense of adventure and one collaborates with all of the elements to find that pearl. The Avett Brothers delivered on the aforementioned counts with a few new tricks, taboot.
At the Rhythm Room, the quartet focused on numerous Emotionalism cuts, opening with “Shame,” a song of regret about breakup hopefully turning back towards reconciliation, “Die Die Die,” a friendly yet direct warning about solo pursuits, “Go to Sleep,” title says it all, “Will You Return,” a longing question interloping with the deep mysteries of one’s faith in bitter inevitability and “Paranoia in D Flat” (as opposed to B Major, the key the song is played on the album). They also dove into their canon by racing through other high energy, crowd-pleasing selections including “November Blues,” a timeless tale about love gone south and the “What Ifs?” that haunt any dissolute relationship, “Please Pardon Yourself” (with the lyric that got a huge roar: "I’ll give up the drinking, just show me how") and a searing solo acoustic reading of "In the Curve," featuring Seth Avett.
Jessica Lea Mayfield and her band from Kent, Ohio, opened the show and immediately won over the crowd (or, at least, this existentially-minded writer). Her quartet includes her brother, David on acoustic and electric bass, Mike Lenz on guitar and Bob Cesar on drums. Mayfield writes solid material that carries a heartbreaking and weary melancholic aura but, somehow, is playfully innocent and quite powerful. She plays acoustic guitar and delivers star-making vocals while having a very relaxed yet professional stage persona. Her seductive baritone voice is a unique mixture of folk, jazz and country with a wee bit of Dylanesque angst. David Mayfield also has an impressive background, while crafting solo music featuring some stellar bluegrass work (hey, a writer’s research is never done) while touring with such classic icons like Ralph Stanley.
And the lead guitaristthis cat deserves his own paragraph. I didn’t really expect the band to do much since Mayfield has such a powerfully charismatic tractor beamindeed, she almost appears like a striking Elizabethan statue in short-cropped black hair and country dress, trying to contain her emotions while delivering such strong material with poignantly addressed points, keeping the focus on the lyrical material. Oh well, I guess you have to share your paragraph with your lead singer. AnywayI tried.
Then againthe lead guitarist, Bob Cesar, plucks rather then picks his strings and occasionally plays some really taut, crystal clear, ambient-laced solos that lift the songs from simply cool folk ballads into a whole other modern realm. I noted that the band could definitely carve out their own distinctive niche within the overcrowded indie meets Americana whatchamacallit field with this sound. There was something about the way Cesar’s playing overlaid a rich sonic atmosphere over a few of the songs that made this music transform from really good to great. Duly notedambient folk rock drifting into country with a dose of blues and atmospheric love-gone-wrong wanderlust via lyrical monologues work quite well. (As does the occasional short sentence.)
Scott Avett sat in on vocals with fellow AB member, cellist Joe Kwon late in Mayfield’s set on a moving version of “For Today,” a bittersweet song of love that won’t last until the sunrise. As further conversations with David Mayfield post-showyes, even after all of this time and all of these great gigs, I still muster courage to politely speak with a musician if he isn’t engaged with more pressing activitieswould indicate the band has an EP currently available titled White Lies, in which most of the gig’s setlist was culled and a new album due to be released sometime in the next few months. Oh, and yes, I did speak with his talented sister but that exchange was so comically paced due to the Avett Brothers spirited and emotional musical onslaught playing like the coolest drunken neighbors on the block in the background that I think we spoke about “HI!,” HUH?,” “Thanks!” and “Uh, I think” and “Yeah, a few months.” Stay tuned.
_- Randy Ray is NOT Jessica Lea Mayfield’s publicist but he does write about wonderful new voices at this site, and to be stored, also, at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com