On foot, Layla's Bluegrass Inn is hardly any distance at all from Bridgestone Arena. Professionally, it took North Carolina's Avett Brothers about a decade to make it from the honky-tonk on the north side of Broadway where they played their first Nashville show — and a modest-sized show it must've been, considering the capacity of Layla's is less than a hundred — to the super-sized venue on the south side that's held such formidable fan armies as Taylor Swift's Swifties and Lady Gaga's Little Monsters this year.
"Physically, they're right across the street from each other," says Seth Avett, "but all the experiences that had to happen between playing [Layla's] and playing the Bridgestone, it's just kind of a funny thing." In between, the Avetts have played pretty much every size room Nashville has to offer. But, the group's singer-guitarist is quick to point out, "Venue size shouldn't be confused with better or worse experiences. They've all been great."
If he's being diplomatic, he's also speaking the truth as it applies to his band — all kinds of venues have been great for what the Avetts do. Early on, Seth and his brother Scott — who sings and plays banjo — test-drove their brother duo in that most down-to-earth of performance sites: people's homes. Yet they modeled their ideas about performing on the big, blistering stage shows of '90s rock acts like Alice in Chains, Faith No More, Rage Against the Machine and Clutch.
"Watching folk acts or country acts or American roots music, we weren't very into that at the time," says Seth. And you can tell he's aware how incongruous this sounds coming from a guy whose band (rounded out by non-blood-related bassist Bob Crawford) was just named Best Duo or Group of the Year at the Americana Awards. "What we were drawn to were these very exciting live shows where the blood was flowing and it was almost athletic or acrobatic what the guys were doing onstage. That certainly was a major influence on our understanding of what a live show is."
And it certainly has something to do with what makes music built on a string band chassis work improbably well in arenas. When the Avetts go for it during their wilder numbers, they really go for it, bursting from bright, brotherly harmonies into raw-throated screams, power-strumming instruments usually associated with precision playing and throwing sparks all the way to the last row. Chances are, you might find even the folks back there singing along with the band's galvanizing, tuneful songs.
That started happening, says Seth, when the brothers were at a more rudimentary stage in their songwriting. "We put Country Was out on our own, which was our first, I guess, legitimate record," he says. "We took that with us in a suitcase on our first tour. We sold as many as we could, and then the next time we went back to those places there were, you know, two or three people who might be singing along with us. And just over the thousands and thousands of shows that have followed ... there were just more and more people joining in."
The Avetts (these days augmented by cellist Joe Kwon and, frequently, a drummer) have released three live albums documenting the expansion of the sing-along. Live at the Double Door Inn came first. "There's probably 20 people there," Avett says with fond amusement. "It's just an ongoing dialogue. Like, it's just jokes and talking. Basically, the guy that did the sound that night at the board, he just recorded it, whatever. I mean, he didn't put any thought into it. He gave us the CD of that recording and we basically just started pressing 'em and selling 'em."
Live, Vol. 2 — one of many Avetts albums on North Carolina indie label Ramseur — captures the sounds of crowded clubs and clinking beer bottles. Live, Vol. 3 — the recording of which, it's worth noting, actually predated the release of their Rick Rubin-produced major label debut I and Love and You and their Bob Dylan-backing Grammy show appearance with Mumford & Sons — was drawn from a show at Charlotte's Bojangles Coliseum with "7,000-plus, or something like that" in attendance. You can hear the Avetts' warmhearted embrace of their roles as entertainers, not to mention their drive to communicate affection to their fans, between songs.
Says Seth, "In paring the live record down, I think we even took some of that stuff out. If you just listen to an album, all those 'Thank yous' can get kinda old. But it's hard for us to hold it back. We try to be as aware of the moment as possible. ... Night after night, having the blessing of being able to go onstage and having folks that want to be there with us and hear our music, it's just something that really shouldn't be taken for granted."
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