When the Avett Brothers walked onstage at a sold-out House of Blues last night, they looked like a band that earned the honor. After spending the past five years nonstop touring with their brand of low-key alt-country and high-speed bluegrass, the North Carolina group (banjo player Scott Avett, guitarist Seth Avett, bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon) hit the jackpot last year with its major-label debut, I and Love and You.
The album’s songs are stronger, bolder and sturdier than anything they recorded before (thanks to Rick Rubin’s rock-hard production), and they sounded even more solid onstage when rubbing against some of the Avetts’ older compositions (which aren’t too shabby either).
Opening with “Salina” (from 2007’s Emotionalism), the band’s 90-minute set split the difference between the group’s acoustic songs (pretty much everything before I and Love and You) and the new record’s more rock-oriented cuts (where a drummer joined them onstage). Playing the country/Everyman purists (Scott sported both a cowboy hat on his head and a bandana in his pocket), they even covered Roger Miller’s “Where Have All the Average People Gone” early in their set.
But it’s the dynamic news songs — which incorporate piano and percussion into the banjo-acoustic-guitar-cello-standup-bass setup — that showed off the group’s grown-up sound. The Avetts played a half-dozen songs from I and Love and You, including highlights “The Perfect Space,” “Laundry Room” and “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise.”
Older favorites like “Please Pardon Yourself” and “Murder in the City” prompted audience singalongs, which the group clearly appreciated. (Too bad the chatty fratboys in the crowd couldn’t have given openers the Low Anthem the same respect; the band’s hushed sound was barely audible over the din.)
A few years ago, a little Avett Brothers went a long way. They are great musicians, put on a lively show, and have their hearts and intentions in the right place. But the banjo-fueled acoustic numbers come dangerously close to novelty after 30 minutes. With I and Love and You — which sounded just as spacious and persuasive onstage last night — they’ve set themselves up for a long and lovely career. —Michael Gallucci (follow me on Twitter @mgallucci)