or the 30th anniversary of the "Traditional Plus" MerleFest music festival, there might not be a more appropriate act to anchor the opening night than the Avett Brothers. Born of a desire to bring rock 'n' roll energy to traditional music and formed by devotees to Doc Watson, The Avetts may have outgrown their acoustic roots over the last few albums, but they still referred to Thursday night's set as "coming home."
Megan Nash, a Canadian singer-songwriter who preceded the Avetts on the Cabin side stage with an endearing set full of Canadian in-jokes and full-throated singing, called MerleFest a "well-oiled machine," a descriptor that could easily be used for the full Avett Brothers concert experience these days. The core of Scott and Seth Avett along with bassist Bob Crawford are still the heart and soul of the group, but the other players have taken increasingly essential roles.
Keyboard player Paul DeFiglia in particular was prominent on numerous occasions, drummer Mike Marsh is key to pushing those rock 'n' roll edges, and the string duo of Joe Kwon and Tania Elizabeth have become just as important to the band's sound. The latter's vocal turn on an encore of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" closed out the set in a gorgeous, soulful rendition.
While this was more of a typical Avett Brothers concert set than the planned 'songs of Doc Watson' appearance they'll be making on the Hillside Stage Saturday afternoon, the brothers found many ways to tip their hats to MerleFest and its inclusive musical traditions. They threw in a couple of songs from the Doc Watson songbook, "Country Blues" and "Wanted Man," to preview Saturday's full set, and basked in the crowd's singing along to their hit "I and Love and You."
The majority of the night was dedicated to material from their most recent album, 2016's "True Sadness." In addition to the title track and hit single "Ain't No Man," these songs show the versatility and power of the full Avett Brothers experience, with "Satan Pulls the Strings" sonic electronic blast countered by the sing-song sentimentality of "I Wish I Was."
Fans were treated to a batch of older tunes from the Brothers' back catalog, including "Salvation Song," which includes lyrics that took on added resonance in this setting that has been so meaningful to the band's evolution:
"We came for salvation, we came for family
We came for all that's good that's how we'll walk away
We came to break the bad, we came to cheer the sad
We came to leave behind the world a better way"
They'll be here at MerleFest all four days this year, with workshops scheduled for Friday, that Hillside Stage set on Saturday, and dad Jim Avett's gospel hour on Sunday morning, so for this weekend in particular The Avett Brothers and MerleFest will all be one big musical family.