The Avett Brothers returned to the Charlotte stage Saturday for the first time since August 2009. The last time it played Bojangles Coliseum the release of its Rick Rubin-produced major label debut was still nearly two months away. Anticipation and promise were on the horizon, but that gig didn’t sell out.
With the Rubin record, an “Austin City Limits” episode, a live DVD of that Charlotte show (which airs on Palladia), and a February performance with Bob Dylan at the 53rd Annual Grammy awards, the now higher profile band easily sold out the venue well in advance this time.
The Avetts chose John Denver’s telling “Back Home Again” for its intimate opener as the original trio gathered at stage front with acoustic guitars and upright bass. Lyrics like “Sometimes this old farm feels like a long-lost friend” were no doubt ones the Concord band could’ve written about their own home. The warmth with which the hometown crowd greeted them gave me chills. The intensity of the crowd as the full band launched into “Head Full Of Doubt, Road Full of Promise” (from 2009’s “I and Love and You”) made it feel like a finale. That instantaneous momentum didn’t let up as the crowd sang and shouted loudly through a Cajun-tinged version of “The Fall” and concert staples “Die Die Die,” “Shame,” “Distraction #74,” and “Go to Sleep.”
The band, as always, was a bundle of energy. Cellist Joe Kwon never seemed to stop vibrating. Scott Avett seemed lighter than ever before, lifting off the stage as he pumped his kick drum pedal with one foot and kicked the other out behind him. Seth Avett exhibited a similar effortlessness during the encore high kicking repeatedly as if simultaneously channeling both the Rockettes and Bruce Lee.
Seth Avett’s “January Wedding” slowed the runaway pace and gave way to a new song that the group has reportedly been playing since New Year’s. The arrangement was fuller than older songs, but still true to the band’s sound. Older tunes like Crawford’s solo “Letter to a Pretty Girl," “Hard Worker” and “Pretty Girl from Cedarlane” (all from 2004’s “Mignonette”) were somewhat surprising inclusions while set staple “Swept Away” was omitted. “The Gleam II” EP was well represented with the intimate “Tear Down the House” and “Murder in the City” (always a showstopper for me).
There were a few differences in the set from the previous Coliseum date including two large video screens, streamers draped across the lighting rig, and a triangle of beaded chandeliers hanging over the crowd and adding a bit of much needed ambiance to the venue.
For fans that have seen the Avetts numerous times fresh arrangements of some songs added another layer. “Kick Drum Heart” got a bigger piano power pop treatment that morphed into a jammy Southern rock breakdown before leading into a bouncy piano pop version of “Colorshow.” “Pretend Love” verged on becoming a country torch song. I could imagine Patsy Cline doing it. Other surprises included a second cover (I don’t think I’d ever heard them do one before tonight). This time it was John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream,” which the Avetts recorded for a Prine tribute.
After 22 songs in nearly two hours the band predictably closed its set with “I and Love and You,” leaving practically the entire room with its three fingers raised. The group returned for the hyper spoken-word stomp of “Talk on Indolence” and ended the set with “Laundry Room.”
Grace Potter, all killer legs and swinging hair, opened the show with a 45-minute set. And what an opener she and her band the Nocturnals were. It might have been hard for a lesser act to follow Potter whose powerhouse vocals and instrumental versatility is as impressive as her stage presence and good looks. Who else could shimmy in a sequined miniskirt and heels and cover Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues” minutes later? She will be back in Charlotte at the Fillmore in August. The Avetts will play Greensboro October 8th. Tickets for both shows go on sale Friday.