Monday, November 19, 2007

Awake with Avetts


It’s 11:06 p.m. I set up for a long, wakeful night. My eyes, glazed with an Americano five hours past and open to almost maximum, dart backward and forward in small motions. I am reading about The Avett Brothers. My heart pounds, maybe from the caffeine, maybe not, as I devour Steve LaBate’s 2006 article for Paste in which he gets to follow them on their trip to perform in Maryland, then in my own college town of Athens, Ga. As I read, their songs play silently in my head, all from their most recent release, Emotionalism. It came out months ago, but I only bought it on Friday, a latecomer to their gloriousness, as I seem always to be to those bands that really matter. “Will you come again? It’s hard to say…I surely hope so,” I hum quietly, the intricate but straightforward melody meandering across my thoughts.

I saw The Avetts live at the Echo Project outside of Atlanta in October. I’d heard maybe a song or two before then, largely ignoring my former roommate’s repeated pleas that I give them a try. To my one-year-younger self, they fell squarely in the realm of bluegrass and country, musical hinterlands into which I simply would not venture, determinedly indie/rock/pop as I was at the time. Since then, I have expanded, it seems, and one glance at this foursome on stage was all it took to convert me completely.

See, I was wrong in multiple ways. First, I should never have so limited myself as far as genre is concerned. One of my good friends spends countless hours calling genres “cheap,” and while I argue that classifications have value (though perhaps very little), he’s dead right on this one. It doesn’t matter by what roads music is made, as long as it’s good. The Avetts aren’t the only ones who’ve chipped away at the boundaries of my taste (using ice picks or something else even pointier and more forbidding to do the chiseling) in the last few months since I began working at my first music magazine. Where even Americana-influenced tunes once turned my stomach, my dislike for country was so vehement, a little group called Band of Horses now makes that very same stomach lurch with pleasure and disproportionate excitement. They still play rock, of course, but it comes with a heavy dose of South Carolina. You hear concert arenas and porch swings somehow at the same time with them, and even the track or two per album that’s almost unadulterated country twang (“Marry Song” off Cease to Begin, for example) makes me smile and sing along. I would have vomited a year ago.

Second, and perhaps more materially, The Avett Brothers (as Dolphus Ramseur specifically told my editor in an interview) are not a bluegrass band. I don’t mean to say they don’t sound bluegrass-y. Of course they do. The primary instruments they utilize are acoustic guitar, banjo, and stand-up bass. Thing is, calling them a bluegrass band would effectively turn the many-tentacled squid that is their music into an earthworm. Or….take the proud soldier that is their music and shoot off all his limbs, rendering him a quadriplegic....I don’t know, both metaphors limp a little too much (and probably deal too directly with dismemberment). I think I like the first one a little better. Anyway. My point is this: classifying The Avetts crams them into a tiny box, artistically. They are several, many, lots, of genres! If they get put into a box, it’s got to be one of those giant packing crates they use at shipyards! Banjo! Electric guitar! Piano! Rock! Country! Bluegrass! Raw, bald, naked, emotional balladry! Screaming! And they’re some of the best songsmiths I’ve ever heard. (Oh god, just listen to “Paranoia in Bb Major”!) I knew they were something special when I saw them live, even though I didn’t know anything of them ahead of time. Their performance energy is superior to anything I’ve ever encountered, and I saw some live shows that very weekend alone that gave them a run for their money. I saw Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, my favorite band at the time, play just after them, and I think I may have gotten more from The Avetts. Even up against powerhouse performers Man Man (my runners-up, for the record), whose theatrical, gorgeous and just plain psychotic spectacle was a lifetime blue ribbon experience, I think The Avetts are the victors.

They, as LaBate says attack their instruments on stage. For music that’s clean and can be captured somewhat sedately in record form, it certainly is a raucous and reckless beast live. Not unlike some poor, bitten fellow changing into a werewolf when the full moon comes out, “Shame” transformed from down-tempo, layered masterpiece to quick, catastrophic stomper before my eyes that Saturday in October. It didn’t even feel like the same species anymore.

The song didn’t lose any of its beauty in the process either. Seth or Scott (I don’t know who sings first on this one, I’m so sorry, I’m a terrible fan) approached the mic smiling as if he knew what would happen as soon as he uttered its first words. What would happen did happen. “Okay, so I was wrong about / The reasons for us falling out / Of love I want to fall back in,” he intoned, only having reached about the word “I” in the first line before the crowd erupted. Whereas the recorded version waits until the very end to evolve into a bouncier, rockier being, this live performance was just spewing energy from the very start. It was quicker, certainly, but not too much quicker…and louder, certainly, but not all that loud…what they do differently live can’t be qualified, other than to say that there’s an intangible characteristic to their performances that just makes a listener 110 percent convinced that there’s no single ounce of effort these boys could possibly put forth that they’re not already pouring into their audience. And that counts for a lot. Even if their music alone wasn’t phenomenal, which it is, that would probably be enough to make for an insanely enjoyable show.

“Shame” might be a bad example, even. Many of the tunes they play that are already quicker and more energetic on the album just go ballistic on stage. Seth and Scott pound at their instruments, they fall to the ground, they head-bang, their long hair and beards flailing as furiously as their fingers are moving and their feet are stomping. Bob Crawford spins his bass dangerously, making any classical musician wince at the price of replacing one of those mammoths. Lyrics delivered with gusto on the record are screamed when the Avetts are on stage (not that there isn’t a little screaming on the recordings). I doubt it was a deliberate aesthetic the guys adopted way back when they began performing this way, either. I imagine regular singing just didn’t pack enough emotion into it. One gets the feeling they’re just….exploding with music, with feeling, with things to say.

And oh, what they say…I’ve had the record all weekend and I haven’t listened to “The Ballad of Love and Hate” once without crying. I mean actual crying, with tears actually streaming down my face, not just experiencing the slight discomfort of a lump in my throat and moving on. I’ve been sitting in traffic and weeping because of this song. Twice. In two days.

And so, I admit defeat. The Avett Brothers have beaten me, run my boundaries and my genre-mongering into the ground like a runaway go cart that loses a wheel. I am won over. And I just need them to come back around and play. It’s 12:26 and my eyes are now open 3/4 (a ¼ improvement over an hour ago if I really want to sleep tonight), but my heart’s still pounding. Maybe that’s the unwanted side effect of being an Avett fan. All this, well, Emotionalism, isn’t something that can be turned on and off. While I’m in their power, it has me and my heart will beat, and stomp, and scream with them.

“I felt so sure of everything
My love to you so well received
And I just strutted around your town
Knowing I didn’t let you down
The truth be known, the truth be told
My heart was always fairly cold
Posing to be as warm as yours
My way of getting in your world
But now I’m out and I’ve had time
To look around and think
And sink into another world
That’s filled with guilt and overwhelming

Shame, boatloads of shame
Day after day, more of the same
Blame, please lift it off
Please take it off, please make it stop

And everyone they have a heart
And when they break and fall apart
And need somebody’s helping hand

I used to say just let ’em fall
It wouldn’t bother me at all
I couldn’t help them now I can.”


Steve said...

OK, so I admit it - I Google myself sometimes, just to see what shenanigans I've been up to (you never know what can happen during a scotch-induced blackout, right?). But I'm glad you liked that Avett's story I wrote, and that you were inspired enough by their music to engage in that impassioned bout of blogging. Fun fact, since you're from Athens: The main Avetts photo from that story was taken on the roof of my downtown Athens apartment, on the third floor above Achim's K-Bob or Uncle Otto's or whatever they're calling it these days. And the others were taken on that street that runs behind Tasty World, just before the band played an ass-kicking show across town at the GA Theatre.

Juliar said...

Steve, I don't blame you for Googling yourself...good to keep an eye on things from time to time. You know, I'll meet you in January. I'll be an intern of yours at Paste (yay!). Big fan of your writing, by the way. And hooray for you having such a prime spot in the ATH. I miss that place already (and I only moved away in August...)