Smile Politely

I and love and the Avett Brothers and you

The Avett Brothers first crossed my musical radar in the fall of 2007. Joel Gillespie had just moved to Champaign for his new job, and I was staying in Iowa to finish up my massage training. He called me one night to tell me about this band that his co-worker was all excited about, The Avett Brothers. Joel thought they sucked. “You’d probably like it though,” he said. He held his cell phone up to the stereo, which was playing a burned copy of Live: Volume 2. “Ha. Ha,” I said, “but I can barely hear anything.”

I promptly forgot about them until February of 2008, when I made the decision to attend Wakarusa. When I noticed that the Brothers in question were on the bill, I sought out their myspace page to give them a true listen. I was immediately intrigued by them; Scott Avett rocked the banjo, Seth was on guitar, and their unofficial brother, Bob Crawford, played the stand-up bass. When they combined their powers, they became something bizarre and amazing that there were simply no words for. Grasspunk? Grungegrass? I called Joel, indignant. “How can you say these guys suck!?!? They’re awesome!” I could almost hear him rolling his eyes, “But they are So. Cheesy.” he replied.

Months later, after I had obtained their entire catalog, the fateful performance at Wakarusa had arrived. My sister, Camille and I sat under a circus tent in which everyone was in a bad mood. That afternoon, there had been a torrential downpour, (Grateful Dead drummer) Mickey Hart’s set had been cancelled, the cops were being complete assholes and busting people for possession left and right, and on top of that, there was a ginormous pool of mud in the middle of the tent (and by proxy, a risk of electrocution) that was growing by the minute. But the Avett Brothers took the stage, soaked and smiling, and then went on to put on one of the best shows I have ever seen. T

hey sang, they danced and stomped their boots, they screamed until they were hoarse, they broke banjo and guitar strings. While they could definitely shred, they could also stop on a dime and deliver a quietly devastating ballad that would render the crowd speechless. I had watched videos of their performances on youtube, but it was quite different to see it in person. The energy that was raised was palpable. You could tell that they were funneling every ounce of strength and emotion that they possessed into what they were doing; living for that moment and not worrying if they had anything left for tomorrow. I found something beautiful and magical in that… they definitely wore their heart on their sleeve. Some might call that cheesy, but I appreciated the sincerity.

Recently, there has been some debate as to whether or not the Avett Brothers have “sold out,” the mere utterance of which makes one sound like a petulant teenager. But indeed, in light of some recent decisions the band has made, I had wondered if their priorities had changed, or if the magic would still be there. Their newest album, I and Love and You (also their major label debut), was released on American September 29. The Brothers teamed up with master producer Rick Rubin (who has also worked with the likes of NIN, Johnny Cash, and the Dixie Chicks) to assist them in its production. (To learn more about the recording process, check out my beloved’s interview with Scott last year.)

In the spring, they toured with the Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic. American released a $90 boxed set of I and Love and You featuring not only vinyl, but a copy of the CD and a download ticket (and including such nonsense as 15 Avett Brothers glossy photos, and an official Avett Brothers bandanna); this was especially a turnoff for me. Additionally, in the weeks leading up to the album’s release, I received almost-daily emails directing me to self-promoting videos on the band’s website. You don’t need to try so hard to impress me, Avett Brothers; I already love you. That’s why I’m on your e-mail list.

But I only needed to listen to I and Love and You a few times to appreciate it. While it’s a departure from their earlier work, especially regarding the polish over the entire record and the dearth of banjo, songs such as “Ill with Want” and “Ten Thousand Words” shoot an arrow straight into my heart because they deal with themes that I also struggle with myself, like materialism, being a responsible adult, and following your truth in a world that is a little messed up. Tunes such as “Kick Drum Heart” and “Tin Man” fit in well with their previous canon, and are perfect pop songs designed for living-room-dancing or car-singing-alonging. As I see it, the Avett Brothers haven’t sold out so much as they’ve taken the next step toward taking their rightful place among the few shining examples of bands, such as Radiohead, U2, and REM, that have preserved their artistic integrity while garnering critical acclaim and at the same time appealing to large numbers of people from all different walks of life.

The Avett Brothers are performing tonight at the Canopy Club. It’s a 9 p.m. show, doors at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance, and Nicole Atkins opens.

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