Fans who go to see The Avett Brothers this summer and expect the kind of stripped-down acoustic performance that was the acclaimed Folk Rock group’s trademark for the first decade of its career will be in for a whole new experience.
The core quartet of brothers Scott and Seth Avett, cellist Joe Kwon and bassist/violinist Bob Crawford now has plenty of company on stage, with drummer Mike Marsh, keyboardist Paul Defiglia and fiddle player Tania Elizabeth in the touring lineup. Crawford thinks the group really capitalizes on its expanded sound in a live setting.
“What we found when we hit the stage a few nights in a row (initially) was that we are kind of sitting on top of a powder keg as far as sound,” Crawford says. “We can take these songs that were originally recorded with three instruments and work them to seven, really expand them, create a lot of depth, a lot of new harmonies. We’ve got a lot of capability that we are really working hard to unleash.”
The Avett Brothers have also been expanding their horizons with the song selections for their shows.
“I think we’re finally beginning to realize that potential that I would put in the vein of the Grateful Dead, where you’ve got this mass of material that you’re sitting on top of and it’s only right to kind of go through it and do as much of it as you can,” he says.
The beefed-up lineup and live sound shouldn’t come as a total surprise. Formed in 2000 by brothers Scott (vocals, banjo, harmonica, guitar, piano) and Seth (vocals, guitars, piano), the group evolved into a trio in 2002 when Crawford was added to the lineup. That year, the group released its first full-length studio album, Country Was.
Over the next four years, The Avett Brothers steadily gained attention within the AltCountry/Americana scene, as they released well-received albums like A Carolina Jubilee (2003), Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions (2006) and Emotionalism (2007), the first recording featuring Kwon as a full-time member. The albums all highlighted strong songwriting, but mainly stuck to a rough-hewn, largely acoustic sound.
That sound changed dramatically after The Avett Brothers signed to legendary producer Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label and partnered with Rubin for the 2009 album I and Love and You. The album retained the Avetts’ acoustic foundation (particularly on songs like the folky “January Wedding” and “Ten Thousand Words”) but broadened the instrumental and stylistic reach to the point that the group could no longer be placed in specific musical categories.
The band continued down a similar path with its sound on the next two albums — The Carpenter and Magpie and the Dandelion — both of which were also produced by Rubin. On Magpie, “Open-Ended Life,” with its graceful vocal melody and prominent use of fiddle, banjo and harmonica, could have worked in an austere instrumental setting.
Instead, the group gives the song a tasteful jolt of energy with a frisky beat and a little electric guitar.
“Another Is Waiting” is a similar case, as the group muscles things up with an assertive beat, full instrumentation and vocal harmonies. “Vanity” starts out on an elegant note before exploding into an epic rocker. Even songs that remain stripped back, such as “Never Been Alive” and “Bring Your Love To Me,” are supplemented with drums and other judiciously applied instrumentation.
The songs on Magpie actually came from the same recording session that produced The Carpenter. The group had amassed a backlog of songs by then and recorded some 30 tracks during the initial session. But once the songs for The Carpenter were selected, the group left the studio with no set plans for the remaining songs. It wasn’t until the summer of 2013 that, at Rubin’s suggestion, the group started entertaining the notion that its next album was essentially already recorded.
“I think it was really Rick’s idea,” Crawford says of Magpie’s genesis. “Rick began to sequence them and (he) said ‘We’ve got an album here. We’ve got something that’s fresh here and kind of stands on its own.’ ”
The partnership with Rubin that began on I and Love and You represented a major shift in how The Avett Brothers usually recorded. The group’s earlier albums had been largely self-produced, so bringing in an outside producer was a major step and learning process for the band. But Crawford says the partnership got easier during the sessions that produced their last two albums.
“There was a lot of growing between I and Love and You and The Carpenter,” he says. “We got just a little savvier in the studio in understanding the boundlessness of the studio and understanding the work and not being as uncomfortable. I think in the beginning, the first week of I and Love and You recording, each of us felt self-conscious and uncomfortable in some way. When we first got with Rick, we learned so much more about playing in time and playing with a kick drum and just these basic lessons about music that we had never taken time to learn because it was just three of us out there raw, playing as raw as possible, just playing on the fly. And it was more about energy than it was about finesse. And I think Rick introduced us to finesse.”
Rubin is highly regarded for his ability to help artists get to the heart of a song and sharpen their writing craft, and those skills were apparent in working with The Avett Brothers.
“He’s the world’s greatest listener. He could be the world’s greatest fan of music,” Crawford says. “I mean, he’s brilliant. The guy genuinely loves music. I’ve never met anyone who’s loved music and listened as well as he does, and listens actively. He’s a very active listener. And so he may tell you he doesn’t play music or he can’t play a lick of music, but he’s very interpretive and very effective for how everything works together.”
THE AVETT BROTHERS play the Yeatman’s Cove Stage at the Bunbury Music Festival 9:45 p.m. Saturday. Tickets/more info: bunburyfestival.com.