Next at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion
Who: ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ in concert
When: 8 p.m. May 25
Where: Arkansas Music Pavilion, Rogers
Cost: Starting at $22 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or visit arkansasmusicpavilion.com for information.
You need to know all of this: I’ve watched them live eight times, the first time almost 12 years ago in a field on Mulberry Mountain, and about every other year since. One of those sets, a 2008 show at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, remains one of my favorite concerts of all time, and I’ve seen many. Lyrics from the band are framed in my home, hanging up above the television in our front room. At our wedding, my wife and I had our first dance to The Avett Brothers’ “Swept Away [Sentimental Version].”
I can’t call myself perfectly objective.
So what if I told you that this show comes in eighth place of those eight shows I’ve seen?
I should interject now and say that Saturday night’s show was a GOOD show. Good, but not great. I enjoyed substantial parts of it. The Avett Brothers play emotive bluegrass(ish) songs with verve and energy. The band features a collection of great musicians, sometimes in interesting combinations: Scott Avett switched around between piano, banjo and guitar. He was flanked by his brother Seth, who plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar and piano. That’s juxtaposed against original member Bob Crawford, who plays a variety of electric and acoustic basses, and against Joe Kwon, who plays cello. It’s an interesting proposition on paper, but it works better in practice than you might expect.
But here’s the problem – I’ve seen it work much better. There was a three-song interlude in Saturday night’s show that reminded me of the Avetts I grew to love. It was just the three original members – the brothers and Crawford, or less, as Scott Avett played the acoustic guitar for a heartfelt solo version of “Murder in the City.” It remains one of my favorite songs of theirs, and it was well executed here.
When the namesake brothers sing harmony vocals, like they did into a single microphone during this mid-set break, they make one of the most melodious sounds you might see in any concert environment. It’s brilliant stuff. They work well in tandem – one brother taking lead vocals while the other carries the melody on a different instrument. Previous, leaner incarnations of The Avett Brothers saw the band members switching between instruments more rapidly, with Seth or Scott occasionally taking to the drum kit that was onstage but sporadically used. They’ve solved this problem by inviting Mike Marsh to play drums for them on tour and their older sister, Bonnie Avett-Rini, to play piano for them.
But in doing so, I’d argue they’ve also created a new set of problems. The larger band fails to showcase their raw talent and unyielding energy. We no longer get to see Scott rush between the drum kit and the piano and the microphone stand out front again so he can return to banjo. It looked and felt less frantic, and it meant there was less energy onstage than when I’ve seen them in the past.
If I were to ignore my fanboy approach to the band and think through the eyes of the family in front of me, I suspect they saw a much different show. If you didn’t know that a three- or four-piece configuration of The Avett Brothers could fill an amphitheater with energy, would you think differently of the show? I suspect so, which is why I cautioned you at the beginning of this review. I’m having a hard time not pining for what I feel is a superior version of the band. I think the same holds true as the band unveils new material. The Avetts played a healthy dose of older material, including a few favorites for die-hards such as “Talk on Indolence.” They also played several from “Emotionalism,” the album that got the then-independent band noticed and led to their major label success. After the “Emotionalism”-era song “Go to Sleep” was played, the father of the family in front of me asked me what the song was, and which album it was from. He’d never heard it. Meanwhile, he and his wife and their two daughters danced around while singing every word to “Ain’t No Man,” the standout track from the band’s 2016 album “True Sadness.” It’s what this family knew, and it’s what they loved, and I suspect there was a large contingent of fans there in a similar position. I further suspect they all liked the show more than I did.
Bands are allowed to grow up – in terms of the size of venues they play or the number of members it requires to produce their desired sound (or both). But that doesn’t mean I can grow out of my nostalgic thinking that tells me one of my favorite bands has evolved into something I like a little less, even when they revisit older songs I like more.
It was a good show by an excellent band. But when it’s your eighth favorite show of a band you’ve seen eight times, it feels like a little bit of a letdown. I know a few others who felt the same way I did about the show, but I’ll emphasize the word ‘few.’ I also know a nearly full crowd at the AMP might disagree with me.