ver since their breakthrough 2009 album "I And Love And You," where producer Rick Rubin brought the band's bluegrass/old-time/folk/rock mayhem under a modicum of control and they began to expand their musical palette, The Avett Brothers have been a touchstone for the growing emphasis on acoustic roots music that has gained massive popularity via bands such as The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons. Judging from this night's show, they are still working on just how to best present that ambition in a live setting.
Translating that growing artistry into larger ensemble playing on stage is both exhilarating and maddening for those in the audience. It expands the arrangements, allows the more studied studio takes to be recreated, but it also bludgeons the softer edges of the brothers' most vulnerable material to a point where it begins to lose the thread of what made it great to begin with. For the middle show of a three-night stand, the band found just enough time to slow down and strip the excess away to make up for any bombastic tendencies.
Let's face it - if you bring a seven piece band, you are going to use it. A dramatic opening sequence featured the band members coming out one at a time, adding their instrument to a slowly building jam that morphed into an unrecorded song called "Satan Pulls The Strings," a fire-and-brimstone hoedown drawn heavily from old-time gospel sounds. Once the entire band got going on this and several other tunes during the evening, it was such a sonic stew that it became difficult to discern some of the instruments in the fray, however.
With frequently shifting players on stage throughout the evening, those moments lacking clarity came few and far between. The most intimate sequence of the night featured brothers Scott and Seth Avett taking solo turns at a single microphone placed front and center. Scott Avett went first, bringing out fan favorite "Murder In the City"; Seth Avett brought along bassist Bob Crawford for an assist on a nicely rendered cover of Jim Croce's "Operator."
Another memorable moment came about more as a possibly unintentional visual; during the final lines of "Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise," while Scott was seated at the piano singing "There's a darkness upon me that's flooded in light, and I'm frightened by those who don't see it," Seth Avett stood in silhouette at the edge of the riser, leaning in with his guitar held out above him like the darkness of the lyric looming over his brother.
It is those spiritual and emotional highs and lows that define the Avett Brothers live experience; Scott Avett exhorted the audience all evening with verbal asides thrown into songs like a preacher egging on his congregation, and during "Morning Song" as he repeated the line "You'll have to sing that melody alone" he stood on the precipice of the lip of the stage pointing at different people in the audience; whether it was meant as accusation or invitation wasn't clear, but the connection was made very personally for anyone on the other end of that pointed finger.
As they get bigger, and play in larger and larger venues, the challenge for The Avett Brothers will be to keep that personal connection intact while their sound also continues to evolve. Only partly successful on this particular evening, they proved they are still at their best when surrounded by the least musical distractions from the songs.