The Avett Brothers
Thursday · Southgate House
Pegging the Avett Brothers as Bluegrass is like describing a peacock as a bird; it's technically correct, but you've missed a few of the high points. Imagine a raucous hillbilly gene splice of The Replacements, Whiskeytown, Charlie Daniels, The Beatles and R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders and you've cracked a sliver of insight into the heartfelt hilarity of the Avett Brothers.
The North Carolina trio planted roots in 1998 when Scott Avett used his downtime away from his Rock outfit Nemo to take part in acoustic Bluegrass jam sessions with local friends in Greenville. Brother Seth soon threw in with the group and the aggregations became known alternately as The Back Porch Project or Nemo Downstairs. By 2000, the Avetts and Nemo guitarist John Twomey had assembled a six-track EP and adopted an authentic sounding Bluegrass name: the Avett Brothers.
By the following year, Nemo had run its course and the Avetts and Twomey decided to blaze separate trails. Increasingly dissatisfied with their electric music, the Avetts decided to make their acoustic side project their primary gig, and threw all of their creative energy into the Avett Brothers. In early 2002, after months of rotating players, the duo hired stand-up bassist Bob Crawford and the trio was complete. In short order, the Avett Brothers turned out their first two albums — 2002's raw and riotous Country Was and 2003's more studied but every bit as wild A Carolina Jubilee — and began touring the region relentlessly.
As word of mouth spread about the trio's incendiary live presentation, casually curious attendees became raving rabid fans and a fair number of the Avett Brothers' area shows routinely sold out.
The trio followed up in 2004 with Mignonette, last year's blistering Live, Vol. 2 and, after an uncharacteristic two-year absence from the studio, this year's Four Thieves Gone, the end result of 11 days in a cabin with recording equipment and presumably, a stockpile of liquor. The Avett Brothers do not do your grandfather's Bluegrass, or even your father's; it is a creation all their own, and you're bound to love it. (Brian Baker)
The Billy Harper Quintet
Friday · Hyatt Regency (Downtown)
There was much made about the recent return of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which brought a surge of healing hometown pride, a slight sense of a return of normalcy, an economic boost and a damn good party back to a part of the U.S. that hasn't had much to party about since that bitch-of-a-hurricane known as Katrina.
Jazz as a healing tool is something tenor saxophonist Billy Harper understands and promotes within his own Post Bop grooves. In his bio, Harper says, "I've had people come up after a program to tell me that they felt a spiritual healing from the music. When that happens, then I feel we're fulfilling what we're supposed to do. If people are entertained, that's okay too. But I certainly see a purpose in my music beyond that."
Harper began healing souls at a young age, starting at 5 years old as a singer at church and other events around his Houston hometown. By 14, he had moved headlong into sax studies, forming his first band in high school before moving on to study music in college. Like most players worth their salt, Harper moved to NYC in the '60s, where he played with bandleaders like Gil Evans and Max Roach and earned a reputation for his Coltrane-like mix of creativity and mastery, as well as his versatility and impeccable improv skills. Harper's own albums in the '70s helped launch two noted labels — Black Saint (with the album of the same name in 1976) and Soul Note (with 1979's In Europe) — and brought him international acclaim.
Harper's recording output slowed in the '80s and '90s as he became a music educator, teaching Jazz studies, music composition and improvisation at various colleges and high schools. He still gigs frequently on the coasts, but his visit for Friday's "Jazz at the Hyatt" showcase is a rare one-off for us Midwesterners. Harper's quintet for the night will feature longtime collaborators Francesca Tanksley (piano) and Newman Taylor Baker (drums), as well as bassist Dwayne Bruno and trumpeter Keyon Harrold. The show — featuring two sets from the ensemble — is a biggie for Jazz-heads, so much so that it has been moved to the hotel's "Grand Ballroom." (Mike Breen)
Fruit Bats with Amadine and Sam Jayne
Friday · Southgate House
Checking up on the Fruit Bats' Eric Johnson, a picture emerges of a guy you'd like to hang out with over a few beers. He is jovial in interviews, beaming in photographs, charming in his Internet ramblings and then there's his music.
On three albums over the course of five years, Fruit Bats have carved a niche somewhere between Brendan Benson and The Shins, producing expansive, folky Indie Pop full of optimism and delectable melodies. If you did sit down with him for a chat, he'd have quite a few stories to tell. Some tales might include relocations (he recently moved to Seattle from his adopted home of Chicago), lineup changes (change is the only constant for FB) or zoology, a topic with which Johnson seems preoccupied (and startlingly well-versed). Going back a little further, there's the band that started it all for him, I Rowboat, a Velvets-like project that spawned the short-lived 4-track diversion that would become FB. Later, Johnson's Califone bandmates pushed him to record a proper Bats album, 2001's Echolocation, and even released it on their Perishable imprint.
The Bats quickly became his primary project, and in 2003 Sub Pop released Mouthfuls. Although the lineup continued to morph, it was through this album (and opening slots for Modest Mouse and other big acts) that folks became familiar with Gillian Lisee and her ethereal harmonies, an FB staple. She departed before their latest disc, prompting a lot of "where's the girl?" inquiries following the release of last summer's Spelled in Bones. While her absence resulted in some lightweight backlash, the band shines so brightly on this release as to quell any naysayers.
Quirky but soothing, Johnson's music continues to attract new devotees and delight faithful fans. This show is the last stop before a tour-closing, two-night stand in their old Windy City stomping grounds. Sadly, the planned in-store performance at Shake It Records (prior to the Southgate House show) was cancelled due to scheduling impossibilities. (Ezra Waller)