The Avett Brothers are one of those bands you really have to see to get: their shows crackle with electricity and warmth more in keeping with a family get-together, and the trio’s traditional instrumentation—acoustic guitar, banjo and stand-up bass—belies their origins. These are old-school punks from the Piedmont whose DIY ethos and in-the-moment attitude have made them one of the more unusual bluegrass-inflected groups around.
Scott Avett and younger brother Seth began playing together in Scott’s punk band Nemo in 1998. After gigs, they’d often retire with friends to Scott’s place to play acoustically until daybreak. Those late-night james grew into a full-fledged side project with a six-song EP. (They even opened for Nemo occasionally.)
In 2001, Nemo imploded and the Avett Brothers moved to the fore. Scott—who until now had only worried about singing—picked up the banjo. Ingesting Doc Watson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Derroll Adams, and adapting Dylan, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and even Tom Waits, they formed a catalog that filled three- to four-hour sets comprised of a quarter originals. And, they performed everywhere.
“We’d really been busking a lot,” says Scott from their ever-moving van. “Playing anywhere we could at anytime, and we were pretty reluctant to involve anyone else. We were just going to do it with the two of us, influenced by people like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.”
But to accomplish everything they envisioned, they’d need another member. They auditioned upright bassist Bob Crawford in a Charlotte parking lot just before heading off on an unbooked tour. If that sounds like a strange way to operate, you’re beginning to appreciate the Avetts’ improvisational style.
“It’s been a great, great learning experience doing this in front of everybody,” Scott says, meaning it literally. “We’re not a band that practices unless we’re going to introduce a new instrument to the band. We practice onstage, we bring new songs to the plate onstage and we bring them when it’s time to record.”
This approach has increased anticipation for their new album, Emotionalism, due May 15. The Avetts are aware of the growing groundswell so both the songs and production received uncommon consideration, which is to say they received some instead of none at all.
“Our intentions were clear,” says Scott. “Instead of letting what will happen happen, we said, ‘This is what we’re going to do: these notes are going to be right and we’re going to do them until they’re right.’ I think sometimes that cancels out some of the ‘beautiful mistake’ thing.”
Though the new album requires a piano player to re-create the sound live, the Avett Brothers are versatile multi-instrumentalists who promise to figure something out. They aren’t ruling out another member, but they’re approaching the decision in inimitable Avett style.“If we need it, we will turn for help, but we’re very intent on help from friends,” Scott says. “It’s important that the people that get involved be people that we respect and love, and that they respect and love us first. And then, if they can play an instrument, cool.”
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