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Avett Brothers Shake the Trees in Backwoods Tennessee

Updated: May 3, 2023

Not long ago a live-music-loving friend told me that the Avett Brothers were the one band he would still see over and over again. Now that I’ve finally checked them off my musical bucket list, I know why.

The Avetts rock hard, which is a weird thing to say about a banjo, stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, cello, and fiddle all swirling around the bluegrassy brother harmonies of Scott and Seth Avett. But it’s true, even outdoors, 90 minutes south and east of Nashville, on an unseasonably cold night for Middle Tennessee in April.

I once heard someone describe the sound as “hand-made,” which fits. The songs range from clever to lovely to sad to profound, but all seem personal and from the heart. And they feature beautiful, layered harmonies and mostly acoustic instruments. Bass player Bob Crawford is playing an electric bass in the photo above, but he mostly plays an acoustic stand-up. Likewise Seth Avett will sometimes throw on an electric guitar, but he mostly strums the classic Martin D-35 shown here. And, yes, Joe Kwon has a strap that allows him to play his cello standing up. He explains how that started here. But I digress.

I’ve seen them called folk rockers, which seems about right. But a quick perusal of their bio on their website reveals that the first goal of the band was rock stardom. That makes sense when you see them live. They move easily between sweet strummers and foot stompers. Mostly what they do is play with passion. They commit to the songs in a way that makes you want to pay attention.

Their first song of the evening was a microcosm of the show. "Laundry Room" is a pleasant reflection on young love that starts off slow with Scott Avett's clear baritone. (Full disclosure: I don't know what the hell I'm talking about when I say "baritone." I looked it up on the internet, which told me that "Scott Avett sings baritone." What I know is that both he and his brother somehow manage to sing with that southern hillbilly thinness - they are from North Carolina - and a kind of a gospelly power.) Most of the song is a pleasant melody with romantic lyrics, occasionally sung with both brothers doubling, or with one responding to the other.

Last night I dreamt the whole night long

I woke with a head full of songs

I spent the whole day

I wrote 'em down, but it's a shame

Tonight I'll burn the lyrics

'Cause every chorus was your name

The song builds and by the end is rocking pretty hard. The audience even knew when they were about to hit the gas, clapping and rising with the band.

Here's the video, which also shows you have cold it was. (Was I able to find video from the show we attended within hours of when we attended? Of course I was. Those YouTube camera crews are everywhere!)

The Avetts are perhaps best known for “I And Love And You,” which you might recognize from the chorus: “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in.” A classic "leaving" song in the tradition of Guy Clark's "LA Freeway, it starts with the simple facts.

"Load the car and write the note

Grab your bag and grab your coat

Tell the ones that need to know

We are headed north"

By the end of the song, you maybe know why.

“Three words that became hard to say

I and love and you.”

It is repeated three times at the very end, the last sung with no accompaniment. At our show Scott Avett stepped back from the microphone for the final repetition, allowing 5,000 or so of us to sing it ourselves. It was a very nice live moment.

I’d heard about the Avetts for years, through friends and on the radio. But I put them on my must-see list after watching the documentary “May it Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers.” I had tickets to see them just over a year ago, but had to pass because of a family emergency.

Indeed, my discovery of them tracks with a difficult two years in which I lost my father and then my mother, and also my father-in-law. This may explain why their final song of the night is my favorite. "No Hard Feelings" stares into the abyss, first with a series of questions.

"When my body won't hold me anymore

And it finally lets me free

Will I be ready?

When my feet won't walk another mile

And my lips give their last kiss goodbye

Will my hands be steady

When I lay down my fears, my hopes, and my doubts

The rings on my fingers, and the keys to my house

With no hard feelings?"

It resolves with a simple answer.

"Under the curving sky I'm finally learning why It matters for me and you To say it and mean it too For life and its loveliness And all of its ugliness Good as it's been to me I have no enemies.

I have no enemies. I have no enemies. I have no enemies."

Do yourself a favor and see this band.


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