Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Crashing into the New Year, Avetts return home

The Avett Brothers' annual New Year’s Eve concert returned to Charlotte with a bang (and a thud) Tuesday after celebrating the holiday elsewhere in the Carolinas for the last four years. The traditional midnight ball drop came early for fans when the largest of 30 or so disco balls hanging above the stage came crashing down with a resounding boom, splitting one of the floorboards of the stage in two, during the changeover between opening act Shovels & Rope and the headliner. 

Although crew members were on stage at the time, no one was hurt and the show went on as planned. Aside from a spotlight shining on it during the encore and Seth Avett giving it a nudge with his foot when the band took the stage around 10 p.m., the group completely ignored the elephant in the room - the five foot tall mirrorball peeking out of the stage.

Time Warner Cable Arena was reportedly sold out. Brothers Scott and Seth Avett seemed took in the crowd standing on tip toes and peering toward the rafters. The homecoming marked the Avetts' biggest hometown show to date. The now seven-piece unit with full drums, organ/keys, and fiddle provided by the Duhk’s Tania Elizabeth delivered a fan favorite-heavy, two and a half hour set of nearly 30 songs. 

Following a rousing set by Charleston husband and wife duo Shovels & Rope, the Avetts kicked off its set with "Open Ended Life" (which opens its recent album "Magpie & the Dandelion") followed by 2012’s "The Carpenter’s" "Live and Die."

At one point Scott noted how long the Charlotte audience had been with the Avetts. Because of that it didn’t really matter how deep the Avetts reached into its catalog. It dug out several from 2007’s "Emotionalism: and a few from 2006’s "Four Thieves Gone." Of course there were omissions like 2004’s "Swept Away," which featured Scott and Seth Avetts’ sister Bonnie in the past. Instead she and their father Jim joined them for "Old Rugged Cross," "Life" (just Bonnie), and the final song of the night, "Good Night Sweetheart" (the doo-wop classic recorded by the Spaniels). Those weren’t the only surprise covers. After a bluegrass rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" the band bounded into John Denver’s "Thank God I’m a Country Boy."

The group’s Concord-based core may be country boys at heart (Elizabeth’s fiddle helped turn "Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise" into a rocking hoedown, for instance), but the Avetts also tap their hard rock roots. "Pretty Girl From Chile" morphed from Spanish guitar to a psychedelic throw-down reminiscent of Scott and Seth Avetts’ early days in Led Zeppelin-inspired hard rock bands. "Vanity" - played late in the set - had that same off-the-rails feel as it turned from Seth’s voice resonating through the arena to the dark, crashing "November Rain"-reception-style piano-driven breakdown which quickly segued into the stomper "Kick Drum Heart." The latter escalated as Seth soloed atop a speaker at the foot of the stage as his brother pogoed at the end of the catwalk (see photos).

The set, which featured plenty of newer material from "Magpie," wasn’t low on intimate moments either. Scott Avett sang "Murder in the City" solo at the foot of the catwalk. His brother did the same for the quiet "Ballad of Love and Hate," while a handful of other songs were performed as the original trio ("Shame," "Paranoia in Bb Major") or with cellist Joe Kwon.

After ringing in the New Year, the group capped the show with "Talk on Indolence." With lyrics about getting "raging drunk," it was a fitting night cap which saw Kwon whipping his hair like a member of Metallica. He may have missed his metal calling. The band’s friends and family members, including children and Seth Avetts' celebrity girlfriend ("Dexter" actress Jennifer Carpenter singing along to "Morning Song" at one point), clapped and danced at the side of the stage.

The only thing missing was the emotional heft of the Avetts' other milestone performances. When the group opened its first Merlefest headlining set with “Murder in the City,” I got chills. When it headlined Bojangles' Coliseum on the cusp of its commercial breakthrough “I and Love and You,” its lyrics seemed to chart its journey up to that point in time. Tuesday’s show wasn’t as telling. Aside from Seth Avett gushing about how happy he was and he and his brother taking in the crowd, there was little to mark it as a milestone. I didn’t tear up or get goosebumps. Yet knowing the importance of authenticity and sincerity in whatever the Avetts produce, I wouldn’t expect manufactured heart-tugging either.

There's no denying how far they’ve come and how much they mean to local fans who have been on this journey with them. When I drove to Concord to meet the brothers in a downpour a decade ago for our first interview, I couldn’t have predicted they’d play the arena a decade later. There are so many factors that play into a local band becoming a Grammy nominated international act. But as Scott stumbled down the catwalk pulling against his banjo chord during “Live and Die” as if the tether was preventing him from rocking harder, I remembered those two college-age kids tumbling into a heap on Tremont’s stage as Nemo (their former band) years ago. There was greatness in their performance even then and it didn’t matter whether they were the unknown opening act on a four band benefit bill or headlining the arena on the biggest night of the year.