In the Church of the Avett Brothers, I once held the esteemed (albeit self-proclaimed) position of prophet lead evangelist. I have taken it upon myself in years past to boldly and effectively proclaim the good news to hoardes of unbelievers. Simply lend me an ear and I’d tell a tale of hair-splitting harmonies, unrivaled anthems, and live shows that have the ability to utterly engulf an audience.
Oh, and the fellowship! The fellowship of Avett-addicted brethren– gathering at smoky venues around the country to recite our lyrical creeds and raise our fists to the melody as if we were actually overthrowing the powers of darkness. The sound of our feet stomping to the rhythm culminated in a raucous uproar, allowing us to both partake and contribute to the ethereal sound surrounding us. Our seminary was held daily on message boards, where discussing song meanings and set lists were common coursework and banjo tabs were our communion. I would be hard pressed to find many times in my life during which I felt this much a part of something great. Indeed, I was a champion for the Avetts.
“Was” being the operative term…but how could such a devoted disciple turn lukewarm with the Brothers he once held in such high esteem?
I can best attribute my apostasy to their major label debut. Before that statement leads you to a misguided impression about me, allow me to clarify – I am not selfishly trying to keep the Brothers tucked away in the indie unknown. Granted, I occasionally miss the days when I could pay only ten dollars, not fifty, to see the band play to one hundred people, not five thousand. Indeed I wish the Avetts nothing but success, especially in the hopes that others can get as much enjoyment out of their entertainment as I have. There was a time when listening to the Brothers left me renewed and alive, and everyone should have the opportunity to experience the same feeling. It wasn’t even their transition to the “major label” itself that bothered me; these guys kept ties with Ramseur Records and burned not a single bridge on their way to the top.
So the question stands: why the fall from grace? To put it simply, they have changed. I realize that bands, styles and interests will always evolve and mature in this industry, but something different happened with the release of ‘I and Love and You’…
Was it the songs? No, it couldn’t be the songs. I had bootleg versions of almost all of them before the album was even released…
Could it be the way the songs came out on the record? Perhaps. The Avetts raw, sweat dripping down your brow, boot-stompin’, high-hat crashin’, kick-drum thumping masterpieces were all the more mind-blowing on the live records…
But above all, it was something unknown, an indescribable lacking. The soul of the Brothers had been snatched out from I and Love and You and we were left with a mere Gnostic shadow of what once was. The situation was only worsened by the dire lack of banjo on the new record. Banjo is to the Avetts what being one handed is to the dude from Def Leppard. In a nutshell, the grit was gone.
Once I got past my initial disappointment, I did enjoy I and Love and You. It just didn’t move me quite like the records that preceded it. I missed that feeling, and needed something to fill the gap. I tried to force myself into loving Elliott Brood, dabbled a bit in Trampled by Turtles, and even seemed to find a ray of hope in Mumford & Sons. But an Avett -sized hole remained in my heart, and I just couldn’t seem to fill it.
Then last Friday brought the Brothers back to town, and the stars aligned to provide tickets for this lost soul and his significant other. As eager as I was for the show, it was like going to see Minor Threat perform without Ian MacKaye on vocals, or like seeing the Lord of the Rings with David Hasselholf as Gandalf – both would be memorable experiences, but ultimately a let-down in comparison to original. However, my cynicism started to fade as the crowd began brooding about prior to the performance. I could almost feel the spirit in the room as the same excitement and joy I remembered seeped back into the room. I was slowly being primed for a possible return to the fold.
The curtain opened and there they were in all their glory, transfigured right in front of me. The moment they set off, the entire stadium – myself, included – was in the palm of their hands. I didn’t even mind that the majority of my viewing was limited to the Jumbotron, I was feeling it again…and “blessed are those who don’t see, yet believe.” The soul had returned to the Brothers, even on the I and Love and You tracks! The set list brilliantly weaved together the old with the new, and even several jams from their forthcoming album, The Carpenter, due out September 11th. Oh, and their cover of the old-timey Appalachian ballad, “Shady Grove,” reminded me that Scott Avett is not merely a hack at the banjo, but he can actually claw a li’l hammer on that gut fiddle. And the last song, an acapella version of “Down to the Valley/River to Pray,” gave me chills something fierce. Then the show ended and there was I – spun around with renewed love for the Brothers.
I have since listened to their new studio track released at Rolling Stone (it had banjo, but from what I understand, it’s one of a meager few that boast the blessed music maker), but haven’t quite returned to regular listening. Regardless, I have great expectations for the new record. I’m confident that the Avetts have settled in more comfortably with the brilliant Rick Rubin at the helm, and I hope to experience a revival in my heart.
Despite everything I’ve said, dare I say that the Avett Brothers are the best band out there right now? I do, absolutely they are. Once you have seen color, you simply can’t return to black and white. I have seen, I have loved, and come Sept 11th, I think this prodigal son will return home…at least I hope I will.