Woodsmoke soaked in white lightning. This is the only way to describe, metaphorically or otherwise, the sounds brought forth by the Avett Brothers during their two-night residency at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, which began on Thursday, November 21st, in support of their latest meditational labyrinth of a record entitled Closer Than Together (QRO review). The trouble with woodsmoke is that it gets into your clothes and even the winter wind does not wash it out. And the sticking point of white lightning is it knocks even the most seasoned libation lover into a codex of cerebral poison pages every bit as private and personal as what your subconscious disgorges on an ayahuasca trip. Maybe these things are not the troubles, but rather the blessing, of both, as this latest record and its Concord, North Carolina creators convincingly suggested. It seems now safe to position the Avett Brothers as the byroad wherein grunge sensibilities meet bluegrass aesthetics – or even as the Newport Folk Festival by way of Appalachia. There is a shorthand for exile that is germane to all of these genres that the Avetts have stylistically creolized and perfected in a way wholly their own. Citing Doc Watson, Kurt Cobain, and the Grateful Dead as primary influences on their early ideas of integrity, artistic power and work ethic, you could fairly sheathe the band’s approach and expansive oracular dimension within the infinite bounds of those three supremacies to this day.
From the beginning, music associated in any way with a rural backdrop, whether you want to call it country or not, has been born under either the unbreakable spell of a family calling or the equally fortified hex of a family caul. It starts with The Carter Family as the best example of the former, and one has to look no further than the vivid torment wrought upon one another by The Everly Brothers to see what typically becomes of boys who share blood and a microphone. Yet, there is nothing in music like blood harmony. The Avett Brothers were bonafide grunge boys before Doc Watson pulled a 14-year-old Seth aside, and in so doing charted their course as one both markedly asunder from traditional country motifs and also almost simultaneously playing snooker with them. The Avetts have never been satisfied with the carrion subject of worshipful self-indulgence that corners most country markets, and have endured the baying of malefactors for refusing to co-sign on what are believed to be requisite songwriting aims for anyone writing in a pastoral ochre.
Somewhere around 2006 a kind of mimetic demi-couture of the downhome surfaced in music as an attempted riposte to the technotronic tension headache of the cresting EDM wave, the apotheosis of which may have been the 2008 Grammys wherein Johnny Cash, The Band, Earl Scruggs and Amy Winehouse took top honors. It is important to note that the Avett Brothers formed in earnest a solid seven years ahead of this coveralled curve, and had been making music like Everlys who loved rather than hated each other for longer still. More surveillants than shareholders of a kind of overalled overkill that sprang from a credible artistic and human need for the stability of the past but ended up in a bit of hokey hauteur and bumpkin bohemian-louche, The Avett Brothers still stand quietly apart from the pseudo-hillbilly gypset that has emerged around the left-field popularity of bands like The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Alabama Shakes and even across-the-pond washboard wizards like Mumford & Sons. Not that any of those inarguably fantastic bands were to blame for the gadflies, but the nearest approximation to anything you will see at an Avetts show is early Welch and Rawlings, the bellwethers of the entire brigade. The Avetts never swanned around in non-functional suspenders or publicly indulged sepia-toned hobbyhorse motifs like candle making or composting, but instead continued to be the real farm boys they were raised to be, keeping chickens and splitting fire wood as a matter of course, not as a matter of style. Scott and Seth Avett possess the easy masculinity of the true southern gentleman, a breed so lost and rare as to be largely regarded as mythological in most of the megalopolises of the world, including and especially those of the south itself. The Avetts have been and remain a rogue state within a rogue state, if you will.
A commonality in all Avett songs is a kind of transparent biophilia, done up in mineral colors. They approach songwriting as the poets and transcendentalists they very much are, but also in the hand-stitched spirit of country music’s eternal foundry for collective blue-collar experiences in hard labor, relationships to isolation, arboreal silence, and the internal disquiet of the outwardly simple man. Put simply, you do not hear the Avett Brothers play songs from The Carpenter (QRO review) on this tour and go away thinking they named the record that because they thought it was cute. Words of amplitude applied to lives of primitive sophistication appear to be the point, along with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to lyrical switchbacks as bendy and riverine as any Blue Ridge thoroughfare married to emotional honesty in the register of Springsteen. North Carolina’s state motto is proliferated in Latin and reads: Esse quam videri, for which the English translation is: “To be rather than to seem.” Hearing the Avett Brothers sing of national and international calumnies with total fulmination but zero recrimination in “We Americans” to an audience so hushed by the power of what was being said you could hear audible breathing two aisles over, it is a short walk to recognizing how of their home state these boys truly are. It is no easy task to sing lyrics like “I am a breathing time machine” and avoid sounding even remotely brazen, but The Avett Brothers accomplish this roundly because they seek only to represent themselves and thus, ironically, they best represent not just their motherland but the musical scene to which they only tangentially belong.
Unvarnished legitimacy and plain talk maxims in music have bellycrawled back to center stage in piecemeal steals over the course of the last decade as some of us soft machines have begun to run pell-mell from full-on technological disruption in all arenas of life. The Avett Brothers are built of the same raw truth-dirt as all of their southern predecessors who understood gravity in a way only bootstrappers can. Finding clear-eyed gravity that never gives way to gravitas is a distinctly mountain trait instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent any definitive amount of time with the self-made people beneath the Mason-Dixon line. Self-effacing humor stands in as a kind of colloquial spy-speak for ever-present struggle, both inward and outward. There is a bardic characteristic to southern storytelling when it is done the way it was invented, and The Avett Brothers exemplify this in a purer way than any of their contemporaries who could lay regional claim to that same long-bound ancestral knowledge. Sharing descent from a patriarchal minister, their spiritual brother-inversions in the rock galaxy would be Kings of Leon. In country it would be Chris Stapleton. If they were congealed into a contemporary woman singer, it would be Brandi Carlile, with whom they toured, and whose Washington roots connect the Avetts yet again to the Seattle that shaped their unique vantage point on the south. They hardscrabble toured their way to success, much in the vein of Alabama, and continue to approach the road the way The Highwaymen did, which is to say with dogged constancy.
This particular show did not favor a leg of Avett history or even the new album, but rather drew multiple buckets from the well of every album in the band’s discography. “Talk On Indolence” and “Distraction #74,” both from Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions, made ‘singalong’ too weakling a word for what became of every mouth and heart present. “Vanity,” from 2013’s Magpie and Dandelion (QRO review) made loads of us listeners remember having seen them perform that one on Letterman, and how that performance was one of those sensory-delayed Avett altiplanos, where you could not tell how tall the moment was for them until you stepped forward in time a bit and could gape from the next plateau up. “I Wish I Was” from 2016’s indomitable True Sadness (QRO review) brought forth a bonanza of brimming tears and giggles in equal measure. “Paranoia in Bb Major,” the dark horse favorite of 2007’s Emotionalism, could have lent drummer Mike Marsh a smoke break as the percussion of human hands drowned any other beats on deck to obsolescence. The songs that were played from the new record could not have been cherry-picked to any greater positive effect, with “Bleeding White” offering perhaps the most telling line in service to the album’s twin flacons of melancholy and beauty: “I’m bleeding gold in the streets but there’s no one to see / Because the kingdom is empty.”
The tangible fidelity displayed to a harshly two-headed beast (experimental songcraft and highly polished musicianship) on this tour makes pertinent the brutalist nature of the road The Avett Brothers have traveled from their modest genesis to the supersonic world they now inhabit, with no less an eminence than Rick Rubin on board to produce them since 2008, an Apatow-directed documentary entitled May It Last currently on HBO, and Seth now graced with his own signature Martin D-35 constructed of high-altitude, winter-harvested Swiss spruce. Though they have been everywhere now, played with Bob Weir and been heralded as the bearers of a conscientious torch of cultural codebreaking initially lit by Pete Seeger, the brothers have also, with regard to living arrangements and poetic vision, never once left the place that created them. With ten studio albums, four live albums, and four EPs now comprising their catalog, they are still the only headbangers with hymns, and have been called everything from ‘Revivalist’ to ‘Americana’ to ‘Neo-Folk’ to ‘Roots’ to ‘Alternative Country’ because the world still does not know what to call anything that defies all established labels so smartly as they do. The appropriate word, originality, would only occur to those who had some. That the Avetts are all of the above, with some Gospel sprinkles and Old Time sauce on the side bears repeating.
Closer Than Together sees the brothers reflecting on these and a cadre of other refractory life codas. Never swerving from their now-famed astrolabe of authenticity that is one another, Scott and Seth Avett function on stage much like symbiotic Geiger counters for everything from fraternal harmonies to hubris (or lack thereof). There is something sabertoothed in the suite of songs associated with this new record and it was readily visible in everything from the loose cannon jigs accompanying Joe Kwon’s electric cello contributions to small and large elements of viscerality in the performances of all seven members of the touring band. As they covered “Old Joe Clark” by The Kingston Trio, the special manner in which the whole band’s reverence for origin songs seems always to remain ‘on the latch,’ as the Irish would say, could not have been more evident.
Whether or not you have ever spent a moment worriedly wondering where the fabulist tales of the old, real, non-televised south went once Duane Allman died, The Avett Brothers keep the radio reflective on the subject of woodclad southern acuity without ever brag-snapping and prove that there is still tractable thinking being done in response to uniquely confederate terrains. That this thinking just so happens to relate so conspicuously to universal global stories of the moment is only further testament to the rapacity of their songwriting skills and greater reason to journey out for the Closer Than Together tour. There quite literally exists no other place at present in popular music where storytellers that reflect the most respectable aspects of the American south are allowing you such a hand-turned keyhole into that world. The rightfully maligned myopia that can so often chaperone other southern artists missed these boys entirely.
The Avetts sing every syllable with a deep echo of humility underneath the notes. It makes the music feel wrested from a lifelong foot-to-earth grasp of what the south means now, earned by growing up intellectually alert during the time it took on that meaning. Rendered effulgently and without any self-serving or side-stepping cowardice, the south you will find in an Avett song lives outside of the fusty suppuration of archaic stereotypes. The soul of the Closer Than Together tour balances unavoidable contemptus mundi with a strapping low-five to all those monsters of music that came from the mountains. Go see the Avett Brothers if you like outer space levels of musical elegance filtered through a brand of ad hoc honesty that is the Zelig of their collective voice – and if anyone mentions the woodsmoke in your hair, remind them it is considered bespoke perfume amongst all the coolest people of North Carolina, and many of the rest of us.