It's hard to ignore the Avett Brothers -- indeed, the City of Charlotte has just honored the trio by proclaiming Aug. 27, 2006, Avett Brothers Day. The Avetts' blend of folk, pop, punk, bluegrass and grunge has them selling out shows across the country. Yet when the band debuted at Merlefest in 2004 and 2005, many folks just walked on by. However, Seth Avett, who will headline his own festival lineup at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on Sunday, just takes the rejection as the price of doing business.
"There's been of lot of talk on their [Merlefest's] message board from people who really don't like what we do and people who do," Avett says by phone from the road somewhere between Bend and Portland, OR. "But we kind of like both -- any reaction is a good reaction."
The Avetts' audience at Merlefest increased this year, as was the case at most venues they played. "Seems that people love a celebration and we try to provide something that resembles that," Avett says, laughing. As anybody who's seen an Avett Brothers show can attest, they do the celebration thing well. Their high-energy shows have the vibe of Southern rock icons, but their sound is more roots-based. Still, there's no shortage of rock in their repertoire. The band has always maintained that Led Zeppelin, Alice in Chains and Faith No More were just as influential to it as Willie Nelson or Doc Watson or Woody Guthrie.
Avett says the personal connection they have with the fans has played a big role in its escalating success. "We know a lot of our fans, and we talk with them. We know their kids' names, and at the level we're at, we're able to have a good opportunity to speak with people who come to see us ... when we get that chance we like to take it."
On a more personal level, Avett understands how it feels when the band connects with fans through its live shows. "When I go to see a band I really like, it's a very joyous feeling to be in the room and hear songs you really love played by the person who wrote it."
Getting a handle on the sound is a slippery proposition. The Avetts don't have one handy, but they like the label "depression dance music" that one critic hung on them. "This fella said it reminded him of music that was popular during the depression era, and that there's a lot of sad topics or themes in the music, but it also makes you want to dance."
Their latest release, Four Thieves Gone -- The Robinsville Sessions, has room for listening, dancing and celebration; the music's all over the place. "Talk On Indolence" sounds like it might derive from a hip-hop session, with Avett's rapid-fire delivery backed by a Zeppelin-esque rhythm. "It's the furthest we've pushed in that direction," he says laughing, "but not as far as we'll go."
Four Thieves includes some slow, pretty stuff featuring trademark fraternal Seth-and-Scott harmony -- with help from bassist Bob Crawford -- on "Pretty Girl From Feltre," the unholy blend of bluegrass melody and rock & roll lyrics on "Distraction #74" and the Everly Brothers go metal bitterness on "Matrimony." Like everything else the Brothers do, the disc's too diverse to fit in one category.
Even though some might be tempted to call it a lovelorn concept album, Seth Avett doesn't agree. His contention is that it's just similar themes that happened to come together. "The whole record has its own character, its own personality," Avett says. "My idea of a concept album is that the whole record speaks to one theme. This record has a variety of themes and doesn't really have one collective subject."
You could make the same case for the upcoming Avett Brothers Jubilee -- The Festival Essex to be held at Verizon. Donna the Buffalo, Langhorne Slim and the War Eagles, the Blue Rags and the Everybodyfields are the featured performers.
The Avetts are not known for their jamming. Avett says it would probably be a bad idea to try to compete with Donna the B on their turf. "While we love to play with other people, we normally don't just step in and do that sort of thing," he says. "We go a bit long-winded at times when strings get broken and we need to adapt, so sometimes something like jamming happens."
Verizon came to the Avetts with the idea of playing the venue, and Avett married it to an idea he'd always had for a festival. "We wanted to step into a venue that would be big enough for us to have the chance to fall flat on our face, which is a possibility in a place that big." Avett talks of planting the seed for an annual three- or four-day festival in the future with multiple acts and stages.
Out of 200 dates the band has scheduled this year, only one was slated for Charlotte, at New Year's. Agreeing to the Verizon event only six weeks before the show date isn't typical of the band's policy for promoting hometown shows, usually done months in advance. "But we decided we needed to play at home and we're trying to let the people know about it."
The other acts on the bill are well-known locally. Donna the Buffalo originally hails from Ithaca, NY, but is considered local since starting the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival in Silk Hope. Asheville's the Blue Rags and Johnson City, TN's the Everybodyfields play the area enough to qualify as well. Langhorne Slim is the wild card from out of town.
Slim got his name from his hometown of Langhorne in Bucks County, PA. Like the Avetts, Slim's music is over the place. His 2005 release, When The Sun's Gone Down, mixes old-school soul, bluegrass, hillbilly, jug band, country and rock. "I Ain't Proud" sounds like gritty street singer/soul man Ted Hawkins. Slim calls Hawkins one of his heroes and says he's flattered that anybody would bring his name up in connection with the latter.
It's not that Slim sounds black -- he's got a high-pitched voice that would be at home in bluegrass, and for most songs has a banjo accompaniment. The soul is in his delivery. Slim credits Otis Redding with turning him onto soul, but admits to loving rock, blues and bluegrass as well. "I love hip-shake bump music, when it's good," he says laughing. "I think Louis Armstrong said there's only two types of music, good and bad, and I'm pretty much with that."
Slim met the Avetts though a mutual friend when they played New York City, and they invited him back to NC to play with them. He'd seen them play at a NYC club so tiny it could double as a closet and was surprised at the crowds that turned out for the band on their home turf. "I had no idea of their following or where they were at that time, which was beautiful and overwhelming. Since then, we've become very good friends."
Though it sounds as if Slim was raised on jug band music from the 1920s and '30s, he says he really hasn't had much exposure to it beyond a friend who worked at Shanachie Records loaning him some videos and tapes of jug bands and old church music. "I wasn't even brought up in the church or anything, and some of that jug band [music] was stuff that somebody from my upbringing has been told I shouldn't be so touched by. I was never sure why that is. That's one argument that I just walk away from."
Some of his material sounds like the Asylum Street Spankers would like to sink their teeth into it. But Langhorne Slim says, although he's done shows with that group and respects them highly, they weren't an influence on where he's coming from musically.
"I don't think I'm trying to change the world with my songs," Slim says wistfully. "If I could write something that after I'm gone, as cheesy as that might sound, some people were singing or would make them feel good when they felt bad, that'd be pretty cool."
Slim's got some competition for that slot. The Avetts are planning some new releases. Bob Crawford has a solo record, New Jersey Transient, coming out Sept. 7. On Sept. 19, the Avett Brothers will release The Gleam, a six-song EP done by Scott and Seth as a duo. "It's very stripped down, very tender, some more fragile type of stuff," Seth Avett says. Meanwhile, the band has plenty of new songs for a full-length studio record they're working on for a Spring 2007 release.
Those looking for release in a live setting need to understand that despite the presence of Donna the Buffalo, this festival is a jubilee, not a jam. "We're not the type of band who does a lot of jamming onstage," says Avett. "We're more interested in spending our time writing, and when the time is appropriate, to perform those songs. We write songs, and we play 'em, folks."
An Avett Jubilee -- The Festival Essex takes place Sunday, Aug. 27, 2006 at Charlotte's Verizon Wireless Amphitheater featuring the Avett Brothers, Donna the Buffalo, Langhorne Slim and the War Eagles, the Blue Rags and the Everybodyfields. The event starts at 2pm and tickets are only $35. This is a general admission show for the whole family -- kids age 10 and under get in free.