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Avett Brothers stay humble

Bell Auditorium, August, Ga., October 16, 2015

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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Bands on the far side of an album cycle's tour can sometimes get stagnant, phoning in the same set or the same rote performances they've worked out over as much as a two-year stretch of shows. The Avett Brothers haven't released new music since 2013's "Magpie and the Dandelion," but the energy, enthusiasm, and emotional impact of their show felt like every song was a brand new experience.

The show opened with "D Bag Rag," a song from one of the band's earliest albums "Carolina Jubilee", that has rotated in and out of that spot for much of the current tour. An instrumental near-ragtime style number, it includes Scott and Seth Avett pulling out kazoos for a goofy solo as the entire front line of the band gets into the buzzing act and fans in the crowd even take out their own to play along.

Having started as a three-piece acoustic act, the growth shown in the past couple of tours with an expanded full-band lineup is finally starting to reap some benefits for the pacing and presentation of their concerts. Fiddler Tania Elizabeth has taken a particularly pivotal role in shaping the brothers' new sonic surroundings; her playing can be subtle and supportive or right out front sawing away, depending on what the individual songs require. At one point she took center stage by herself for a brief solo medley of a couple fiddle tunes-the French Canadian "Le Reel Du Pendu" and a Louisiana Cajun song, "Bars De La Prison."

The full band sound is taking the brothers far from their folk-rock beginnings, though if one digs back to their high school days in Nemo, the rumblings of a raucous rock ensemble are nothing new.

What is, however, is the way they ease into some of the heavier moments with shifting dynamics that wring out every bit of drama and emotion. A version of Doc Watson's "Country Blues" was a great example of this technique, beginning softly and slowly with Scott Avett on banjo and vocals, only accompanied by Paul Defiglia's piano for a verse. The other players gradually chimed in, first softly undergirding then kicking into a classic rock riff-fest featuring Seth Avett on full-bodied electric guitar that any Kansas fan would have enjoyed. Only difference? Instead of dueling guitars it was a banjo/fiddle faceoff at center stage.

There is still strength in the quieter numbers, especially now that the full band arrangements have become more than just re-creations of the album versions. "Last Song to Jenny" was another "Carolina Jubilee" rarity that's evolving with the arc of the band's development; here it was staged with not only Seth Avett's gentle acoustic guitar, but an all-acoustic backup of Joe Kwon on cello, bassist Bob Crawford on fiddle alongside Elizabeth, Defiglia taking upright bass, Mike Marsh on drums, and Scott Avett on banjo. The effect was a full, swelling sound that never upstaged the wistful sentimentality of the tune.

New songs are getting the same treatment. There isn't an album version to compare it to yet, but "Wish I Was" has become a fan favorite already in its live form; the song is amusingly romantic with a playful lyric, as much John Prine as it is Jim Croce. It is being presented during the acoustic trio segment of the show, with just the brothers and Crawford, but one can easily hear the possibilities of adding additional players like they have on "Morning Song," which benefits from the expanded harmony vocals of Kwon and Elizabeth leading the audience in a call-and-response chorus singalong.

As the Avett Brothers have gained popularity, they have played bigger and bigger stages but their roots as a scrappy young touring band playing tiny taverns around the country still show occasionally. At one point, the brothers had a short back-and-forth about one such barroom they used to play nearby in Augusta, The Stillwater Taproom, and a Ramada hotel that has apparently seen some interesting after-show moments itself. "The Ramada was like our second home there for a while," Scott Avett joked. They are far removed from those tiny rooms at this point, but humble enough to recall those times fondly even as they continue to play the same songs in so many new and different ways.