Fans who come to Papa Joe’s Banjo-B-Que Music Festival on Friday, May 23, to see The Avett Brothers might expect to see the stripped-down, acoustic performance that was the acclaimed folk-rock group’s signature for the first decade of its career, but they’ll be in for a whole new experience. The band plays at 9:30 p.m.; Friday admission is $35 and gates open at 5. For more on the festival, visit banjobque.com.
The core trio of brothers Scott and Seth Avett and bassist Bob Crawford now have plenty of company on stage with drummer Mike Marsh, keyboardist Paul Delfigia, cellist Joe Kwon and fiddle player Tania Elizabeth now in the touring lineup. Crawford likes what he’s hearing and seeing and thinks 2014 will see The Avett Brothers really capitalizing on its expanded live sound.
“What we found when we hit the stage a few nights in a row (recently) was that we are kind of sitting on top of a powder keg as far as sound,” Crawford said in a recent phone interview. “And 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,” he said.
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 Avett (vocals, guitars, piano), the group evolved into a trio in 2002 when Crawford joined the lineup. That year, the group released its first full-length studio album, Country Was. A concert CD, Live at the Double Door Inn, followed later that year.
Over the next four years, The Avett Brothers steadily gained attention within the alt-country/Americana scene, as the group released such well-received albums as A Carolina Jubilee (2003), Mignonette (2004), Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions (2006) and Emotionalism (2007).
The albums all highlighted strong songwriting, but mainly stuck to a rough-hewn, largely acoustic sound. But that sound changed dramatically after The Avett Brothers signed to uber-producer Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label and partnered with him for the 2009 album I and Love and You. That CD retained the Avetts’ acoustic foundation but broadened its instrumental and stylistic reach.
The group continued down a similar path with its next two albums – 2012’s The Carpenter and its current release, Magpie and the Dandelion – both of which were also produced by Rubin (whose eclectic résumé includes producing albums by the Beastie Boys, Slayer and Johnny Cash).
On Magpie, for instance, Open Ended Life, with its gracious 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 up things with an assertive beat, full instrumentation and vocal harmonies.
Even songs that remain stripped back, such as Never Been Alive and Bring Your Love To Me, get supplemented with drums and other judiciously applied instrumentation.
The songs on Magpie actually come from the same recording session that produced The Carpenter. The group had amassed a backlog of songs by then and recorded some 30 songs during the session.
“We had a bunch of songs that were moving toward being considered for recording. We just said, ‘Why don’t we just record them all?’ ” Crawford said.
But once the songs for The Carpenter were selected, the group left the studio with no plans for the remaining songs. It wasn’t until summer 2013 that, at Rubin’s suggestion, the group entertained the notion that its next album was already recorded.
“I think it was really Rick’s idea,” Crawford said. “Rick began to sequence them and Rick 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 represented a major change for Scott and Seth Avett and Crawford. The group’s earlier albums had been self-produced, so bringing in a producer was a major step and a learning process.
“There was a lot of growing between I and Love and You and The Carpenter,” Crawford said. “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.”