Backwards With Time: Two Nights and Ten Years with the Avett Brothers

by Mitch Pollock

It doesn’t take long to feel it. Four songs into Thursday’s set, Seth Avett plays the trickling guitar intro of “Morning Song.” The crowd swells in recognition, and brother Scott steps to the mic. Hurts so bad/ You don’t come around here anymore. It’s the first song of the night in the classic Avett mold: jubilant bluegrass and raw emotion. The stage is washed in orange light that matches the woody venue. The place is bouncing. Scott’s like a puppeteer, pulling the crowd towards him with each yank of his banjo neck. As the song peaks, he loses the banjo and walks onto a platform that runs between the crowd, grabbing arms and repeating the last line of the chorus: I have to find that melody alone. The audience chants it back in harmony, and eventually Scott stops, pretends he just noticed. “Wait, I guess I don’t! Never mind,” he shouts, and darts back to the main stage.

There’s a big laugh and a surge of energy, but I don’t join in. I feel like I’m in a trance: covered in goosebumps and a bit weightless, like there’s an inch air under my feet. I realize I haven’t felt this good in months. I expected a great show, but this was strange. It felt religious.

This was Night 1 of three Avett Brothers shows, all with unique sets, to kick off a summer of touring. I attended the first two nights, and only my tight wallet and short list of persuadable friends kept me from the third. As evidenced by my overly dramatic anecdote, it was a meaningful experience, one I still find myself thinking about almost a month later. I’ve been a fan for ten years, but I’m only now realizing how deeply connected I feel to their music. This piece was conceived as a way to share my love for the band, but I became more interested in puzzling out why they mean so much to me.

For those unfamiliar with the folk-rock group, the “Avett Brothers” moniker extends beyond songwriting duo / actual siblings Seth and Scott. The band has included Bob Crawford (bass and violin) since nearly the beginning and Joe Kwon (cello) for over a decade. They emerged from North Carolina at the turn of the century and released their first full-length album, A Carolina Jubilee, in 2003. It established their trademarks: bluegrass-rock sound and emotionally raw lyrics (an oversimplification, but let’s keep it moving). Since then, they’ve expanded their sound while retaining the spirit of their early work; keeping it interesting without losing the magic.

They built a dedicated following with their unique sound, poetic songwriting, and sterling reputation as kick-ass live performers. Then the folk-rock boom carried them to new heights. This is where I come in: the folk revival of the early decade constituted an unhealthy portion of my high school soundtrack. Think Fleet Foxes, Of Monsters and Men, The Lumineers, Bon Iver, and (obviously and regrettably) Mumford and Sons. The era was big and brief; it was mocked almost as soon as it started. But it was hugely influential to my impressionable music palate and indirectly led me to a lot of fantastic early folk artists.

But while most of their peer folk revivalist groups have followed the current of pop music to new styles, or simply faded away, the Avett Brothers have stayed true to their now two-decade-long identity. They were here before Mumford and they will be long after, still writing simple, heart-rending, sonically deep tunes on guitar and banjo and stand-up bass. Judging by their record sales and the crowds I witnessed, they’re more popular than ever.

I arrived early both nights, which left a lot of time to check out the venue: Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts (an awesome name and an equally impressive venue). More specifically, I was at the Filene Center, the towering wooden structure at the center of the park. Inside, a large sloped lawn leads down to two levels of seating; the design allows for great views of the stage for those on the grass. Seth Avett half-jokingly called it “wooden Red Rocks East.” I can’t evaluate the comparison, but it’s a fantastic place to see a show, and especially a folk show.

The time before the show also allowed me to people-watch, and at first, I was disappointed. The crowds seemed to lack any unifying characteristics. There were some types I expected: packs of sharp, dull-looking young professionals of the kind you see all over DC (and that I fear I’m slowly morphing into). Lots of 30-something couples on a night out, sipping IPAs. But the more I looked, the more I saw. There were bros, geeks, hicks, yuppies, adorable old people, cranky old people, little kids with ice-cream mouths, awkward teen couples with their arms and fingers entangled in elaborate knots. There were a few huge groups that looked like extended families, with obnoxious blanket spreads on the lawn. A surprising number of people appeared to be alone.

The only common factor was the abundance of Avett gear. This might seem obvious at a concert, but I saw fans with shirts from shows 10 or 15 years past. This, along with the pre-concert chatter I overheard and the singalong vibe during the show, was evidence of a serious, devoted crowd. I was among superfans.

How can a bluegrass band have both broad appeal and a passionate following in 2019? Why did I hear people singing along to nearly every song from both setlists? Why was I even asking these questions when I was one of them? I was dancing with a grin on my face, singing myself hoarse, wiping away tears more than once each night. What brought me here, and why was I so sad to leave?

The obvious culprit is nostalgia.; their music is inseparably tied to specific moments of my life. On Night 1, Scott went to the piano to play “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise”, and I was back in my freshman year of high school, listening to I and Love and You and forming a music taste all my own for the first time.

Then there’s “At the Beach.” An older song of theirs, so when I heard the intro late into Night 2, I literally screamed in surprise, prompting some bewildered smiles from the people in front of me. It appeared on a mixtape from my high school best friend, a gift to make my drives to school go by faster. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. Along with a few others (“Internet Killed the Video Star,” “Girl” by Beck, and (embarrassingly) “We are Young”), it’s my Abby song.

I could go on (and I will, in a bit), but I’d first like to acknowledge that I’m not breaking any new ground here. “Music is magic and makes you feel things” isn’t the most revolutionary idea. But I’d argue it is revolutionary to each of us when we first internalize it. I’m talking about hearing a song that translates the confusing language of our hearts. Lyrics that explain you better than you ever could, paired with melodies that reproduce those feelings in the moment. Songs that give us a small way to share our inner selves with others (“you’ve got to listen to this, man. These guys get it!).

This is more than nostalgia. The Avett Brothers aren’t just tied to my memories, but to intense emotional experiences. I listen to them and my heart goes back in time.

I hear “Tear Down the House”

Bulldoze the woods that I ran through
Carry the picture of me and you
I have no memory of who I once was
And I don’t remember your name

– and I’m in my freshman room in West House, alone in my bed, feeling powerless as my childhood slips away, wondering how I’ll ever live life without my high school friends and the perfectly carved identity I made at that place. That year, I started playing their music on my guitar and singing, always by myself, as a kind of therapy. I loved the simplicity and rawness of the lyrics. I felt like I was letting things escape me.

I hear “True Sadness”

I cannot go on with this evil inside me
I step out the front door and I feel it surround me
Just know the kingdom of God is within you
Even though the battle is bound to continue

– and I’m in a sophomore now, buried by depression, but willing myself to step outside and walk to Centennial Park to do some reading, and to maybe feel an hour of joy in the day.

I hear “Laundry Room”

Stop your parents’ car
I just saw a shooting star
We can wish upon it
We won’t share the wish we made
But I can’t keep no secrets
I wish that you would always stay

– and oh, boy. I’m in another dorm room, months away from leaving Vandy, on my bed with my guitar. I finally found someone to sing to; I’m in love. A possibility I’d lost almost all hope for. A beautiful time I couldn’t possibly describe with any justice.

Then there’s “November Blue” and “Shame” and “If It’s the Beaches” and “I Would Be Sad” (which was brutal to hear live). If the brothers have a lyrical staple, it’s heartbreak. Strongest to me (which might explain that concert reaction I described) is “Morning Song”:

It’s alright
If you finally stop caring
Just don’t go and tell someone that does
‘Cause even though I know there’s hope in
Every morning song
I have to find that melody alone

That takes me back to my shower. I sang it to myself more than a handful of times after vicious struggles getting out of bed. It calmed my nerves and made the idea of going to work seem a little more bearable.

The nostalgia is real, and the emotional resonance is strong. But there’s something even cooler that draws me to The Avett Brothers. It’s hardest to pin down; I’d describe it (pretentiously) as their “ethos.” Midway through an EW interview held after the release of their 2012 album The Carpenter, the brothers discuss their childhood. Scott and Seth tell stories of how sentimental they were as boys, how their music allowed them to carry that mentality into adulthood. This leads to a comment by Seth about the type of music they admire and aspire to: “Artists that speak on love and speak on feeling in an all-important kind of way. In a way that speaks to the listener in a way that says, ‘This is all that matters.’ So, we do that, too.”

I read that, and I think, that’s me. I imagine a majority of the Wolf Trap crowd would think the same. With their music, rather than merely describe life, they shine a spotlight on a way of life: believing in love, being vulnerable, feeling deeply. It’s putting your heart on the table over and over and not being afraid of the butcher’s swing. It’s romance. In this way, their music doesn’t just reflect my experience. It’s also aspirational. It’s what I feel and how I want to be.

It can be frightening to be that open, but it’s easier when you’re not alone. Late in the evening on Night 2, the band clears out, the stage goes dark, and a spotlight focuses on Seth Avett and his guitar. He sings “The Ballad of Love and Hate”, a singalong song if he’s ever written one. But few people are singing. As Seth ambles through the tune, the crowd starts to feel like a huddle, everyone leaning towards the stage and into each other. I feel like I’m holding my breath waiting for the reunion at the song’s close. Finally, it comes: I’m yours and that’s it, forever/ Your mine and that’s it, forever. When the audience erupts, I see a woman wiping tears away and it reminds me to wipe my own.

Remembering moments like that (of which there were many on both nights) gives me a better understanding of the people I’d seen by themselves. It’s impossible to see these guys live and feel alone. Maybe you think that’s too dramatic. Overly romantic to the point of corniness. But, come on, give me a break. I’m an Avett Brothers fan.