REVIEW: The Avett Brothers at Hill Auditorium

Avett Bros at Portland, OR
Avett Bros at Portland, OR

The same place where Robert Frost recited his poetry 51 years ago and Jerry Garcia led the Grateful Dead, Scott and Seth Avett stepped onto Hill Auditorium’s stage on February 12 to play a nearly sold out show.

The Avetts, with Joe Kwon on cello and Bob Crawford on upright bass, stood on oriental rugs facing an audience of close to 3,300. When you’re a four-piece indie folk-rock band from North Carolina, what’s your next move?

True, the modest-mannered band didn’t play in the Big House, but Hill Auditorium is the Big House for music on campus. And bands like the Avett Brothers, who perform their music with the utmost sincerity, almost always require a small venue. Or, at least that’s what I thought.

With a humble guitar and banjo, beneath tranquil lights, the Avetts began playing “Down With the Shine” from their new album, The Carpenter. It was lovely. It was peaceful. They played “Will You Return.” My feelings didn’t change; I was relaxed, enjoying the music.

And then came the “La da, la da da’s,” both from Seth and Scott, but from the audience, as well. “Do not sing if you don’t want to!” Scott yelled. People sang louder, so he repeated himself. “Don’t sing! Especially if you don’t want to!” The more he said it, the more “la da, la da da’s” came from the mouths of people sitting next to me and behind me and in front of me.

Atmosphere and audience engagement are a big selling point for me when I go to a live show, and if you manage to persuade 3,000+ people in the same room to sing, clap their hands to a beat, stomp their feet to the rhythm, and bounce their heads, then that’s something indescribable. That’s music, that’s magic.

The Avett Brothers played other songs as Joe Kwon made terrifying faces with his cello and Seth Avett waltzed around the stage with his guitar. Scott fluttered back and forth between his banjo and the piano. There was a lot of jumping up and down from band members. They played “Head Full of Doubt” with appalling energy (I’ve never seen someone bounce and dance as much as Seth Avett onstage), as well as “Laundry Room” – my favorite Avett Brothers song.

After bluegrass jam sessions that made me anxious because I couldn’t get up and dance, Scott Avett took the stage solo, with just a guitar. He played a song I didn’t know – “Murder in the City” – with such elegance that after my heart was racing from such exciting music played beforehand, I didn’t know what to do with myself besides listen to the beautifully crafted lyrics. In such simple words, the Avett Brothers manage to tell heartbreaking stories: “A tear fell from my fathers eye/I wondered what my dad would say/He’d say I love you and I’m proud of you both/In so many different ways.”

The band was clearly deflated from such an energetic opening thirty minutes, but they carried the show eloquently, all the way through their four-song encore. When they left the stage, they did so bashfully, modestly, waving and smiling, because the night before, they’d be on Late Show with David Letterman, and Ann Arbor would just be another place they had 3,300 people on their feet to hear the two brothers from North Carolina strum on their instruments.

Setlist 2/12/13

  1. Down With the Shine
  2. Will You Return
  3. Go to Sleep
  4. 74
  5. At the Beach
  6. Geraldine
  7. Head Full of Doubt
  8. Live and Die
  9. Paranoia
  10. Laundry Room
  11. Old Joe Clark
  12. Through My Prayers
  13. Murder in the City
  14. Ballad
  15. Father’s First Spring
  16. Living of Love
  17. Buck Owens
  18. Slight Figure
  19. Kickdrum
  20. Michigan
  21. ILY

Carpenter, Indolence, Rollin’ My Sweet Baby’s, Shady Grove

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