"Die Die Die" from the album Emotionalism
Last week, an early-to-rise Avetts fan posted at 5:57 a.m. on the band's online forum that, "The new performances and the new album is pop-music-fluff and sappy. Gone are the stompin', super-hyper, kick-a$$ [sic] fests of old." By the time most folks were finishing their Cheerios, no fewer than 20 other fans had come to defend their favorite band, one writing, "I don't know what shows you've seen recently, but I've seen them seven times this year, and they still bring it. I'm in college; I can't waste my money on something that isn't any good."
The Concord, N.C.-bred Avetts do indeed "still bring it." At summer shows in Asheville and Boone, the sharply-dressed brothers, Scott Avett (banjo) and Seth Avett (guitar), along with stand-up bassist Bob Crawford, worked themselves into a sweaty rock 'n' roll frenzy, with only an acoustic guitar, banjo, upright bass, and hi-hat in their arsenal.
On Emotionalism, the band's latest release (and tenth since forming in 2000), they hint at their hard-rocking, pre-Avetts history, with Scott pulling out his electric Guild S100 to get crunchy in the closing minutes of "Pretty Girl from Chile." Perhaps the album's freshly-polished sound, the addition of cellist Joe Kwon (who will join them in Charleston), or the usage of electric instruments led the fan (and others, undoubtedly) to bemoan the loss of their secret gem of a favorite band. Or maybe it's the thousands who have shown up to see them at their second- and third-ever gigs in West Coast towns, or it could be the headlining spot they just nabbed at Merlefest 2008.
"It's very exciting to see people get something out of it, even the ones that criticize us," says Scott Avett, on the phone from Concord during a brief respite from touring. "We're going to continue to change, and some people will love that and some people won't, and we never claimed that we wouldn't."
Prior to Emotionalism, the Avetts' albums have been strictly acoustic, defined by freewheeling harmonies and raucous tempo changes.
"We went back to basics around 2002, stripping everything back down without hiding behind any effects, literally and metaphorically speaking," says Scott. "We were straight-up and honest about writing and what the songs would be, and I think when you bring it down to those sort of basics you find a common denominator across the board for people. Acoustic music is breaking down to the bare bones anyway, and if you're writing lyrically in that form, it's a kind of a double feature sort of thing."
Many of the Avetts' songs are about love, loneliness, and the tribulations of relationships — themes that most listeners can associate with. Even for a band with such universal appeal and burgeoning popularity, they still have "self-destructive" moments.
"I think all artists have this dark side you've got to keep in check, and we've chosen to focus on moving forward," says Scott. "When it's bad, you keep your head up. I think that's contagious, and that's another thing people catch on to, whether the music's good or not. I think they recognize that."
Scott's dark side shows up more in his visual art than in his music. In addition to his duties with the Avetts, he's a successful painter, printmaker, and sculptor. His subjects are most often human, and rarely cheerful in appearance. In one piece, titled "The Underdog," two men, both with faces similar to Scott's, carry a severed human head dripping with blood, also his own image.
"I was living up in Mars Hill, N.C., a few years ago and had a lot of late nights painting," says Scott. "It was a neat time because I'd stay up and paint from 10 p.m. to 4 in the morning, and there were a lot of dark moments and quiet, lonely times that a lot of paintings came out of."
His personal website includes an application to pose as a model, a feature that receives increasing numbers of hits as his band grows in popularity. "The more the merrier, really," says Scott. "The questions are designed to tell who's serious about it, so I can tell if someone's just a gushing-fan-type-thing, who's probably interested for the wrong reasons."
For both Scott and Seth, quiet, lonely moments are increasingly harder to find. They spent three consecutive months on the road this summer before a brief return home to Concord. They play Charleston on a fall tour that's taken them to California and then on to Texas, New England, and Florida before a homecoming New Year's gig in Charlotte.
"Our crowds are the same people all over the planet. It's sort of an underground community," says Scott. "People have the same temperaments and groups all over the place, and they're always positive, overall."
For a band whose nucleus has literally played together since birth, their recent success must be a thrill.
"We couldn't ask for more right now," says Scott. "It's bizarre, in a really glorious way."