When they came out for their encore, the Avett Brothers looked out at the sold out Greek Theater in Berkeley, Calif., smiled and said, “Thanks for bringin’ us back out ya’ll, been a helluva ride.” It was most certainly that. The Brothers Avett ran through a litany of their classics including “When I Drink”, “I Killed Sally’s Lover” and “Murder in the City” amongst others. Their raw energy is similar to that of a punk rock band, but are instead armed with a banjo, a stand-up bass, an acoustic guitar, a piano and a cello.
With six studio albums, three live albums and five EPs, the band is touring in anticipation of their next upcoming album due sometime in the next few months (which hasn’t officially been announced yet). There are times when an artist steps aside for the crowd to sing the lyrics and they are almost always tenuous, especially when they may not be one of their most well-known songs. It’s different with an Avett Brothers crowd, though, never in my life have I heard a crowd that sang so harmoniously.
People that come out to see this group of men play punk rock bluegrass are some of the most fervent fans around and they don’t fit into a stereotype. They are old, young, and everything in between. These fans know their band, every song, every line in those songs, every band member and even the songs like “Down with the Shine,” which has never been on a studio album. They are akin to, dare I say it, Springsteen fans. When the Avetts play, they go all out, they let loose and they play like the Mayans were right.
There was a point in the festivities where Seth jumped on top of the stage monitor with his guitar, Joe Kwon the enthusiastic cello player and Bob Crawford the bass player stood off to one side, the drummer drummed under a flood of light and smoke and Scott Avett four feet from the mic started screaming and jumping up and down with such energy that the whole place shook. Seth then jumped off without missing a beat and the song raged on. If Johnny Rotten had thought of this 30 years ago he’d be a much wealthier man than he is now.
The opening act, and I almost hesitate to call him that, was Jackie Greene, a dynamic performer in his own right. He didn’t play for as long as many would have like him to, but he played loud, fast and a ton of soul. With a voice that is pitch perfect almost every time Greene has been recently playing shows with Grateful Dead alum throughout the Bay Area and decided to open up for the Avetts to create a perfect lineup. It is the first time I’ve ever seen an opening act receive a standing ovation and come back for an encore. It was unbelievable magic.
After he left and the Avetts played a song or two during their encore the lights dimmed, the ancillary characters left the stage an old fashioned microphone was brought to the stage by a road hand and they approached with an acoustic guitar, a banjo and with the spotlight shining directly on them they played Doc Watson’s “Shady Grove”. The song resonated with many of those who loved admired the bluegrass great who recently passed. It was perhaps the highlight of the night with many dancing to the finger pickin’ banjo of Scott as he ran through the banjo as if it were on fire. As we sat there on those stone seats under a perfect, yet blustery starry night together, we shared in the sing-along memoriam of the once great former artist sung by his fellow North Carolinian statesmen.
To close the show they chose to sing “Down in the Valley to Pray” an old slave hymnal from the 19th century, made famous by Doc Watson in his Appalachian a capella style, which the Avetts modeled this version after. Some sang along, some merely listened and some closed their eyes and dreamed. In a perfect world the Avett Brothers would be the most hyped act around. Simply to get the word out on such greatness isn’t an easy task and perhaps that’s ok. On Saturday I watched a band that break strings, screams, beats the hell out of their instruments whether they be banjo, piano, guitar or vocal. The Avett Brothers gave us something most bands don’t offer and that’s the chance to be a part of something special. The people that left that show left with smiles and warm memories and will forever remember the time they sat in a weed smoke filled outdoor theater with a few thousand of their closest friends under a crescent moon and listened to bluegrass the way it was meant to be heard.