Smile Politely

Hurricane in a Whiskey Bottle: The Avett Brothers with Jessica Lea Mayfield

The Canopy Club, Feb. 28th, 2008

William: Opening with a vigorously plodding country number, Jessica Lea Mayfield’s opening set soon accumulated rock mass, with bowed upright bass and jagged electric guitar. The result is a restrained southern violence, a thunderhead sweeping across the gentle delta.

The band wear suits and each countrified ballad is delivered like an important piece of hard-earned wisdom. Mayfield mentions she is from a musical family; the bassist is Jessica’s brother. The drummer uses brushes and looks like Andy Warhol. The guitarist sometimes descends from view to manipulate what sounds like a pedal steel.

Cristy: My mother saw Mayfield in Springfield last year, opening up for The Avett Brothers. Back then, she was a 17-year-old chitlin, sporting a mohawk and appearing solo. She has since changed her moniker (back to her given name, I assume) and gotten a band that only enhances her talent. A shy presence, Mayfield’s maple-rich voice betrays her elfin countenance. She sings like the meek girl in school who pines after boys from afar, then retreats to her bedroom to sing soulfully along with Dusty Springfield records.

W: A chameleonic, fabulous fashion goddess, now she looks like a colorized 1950s librarian with blue hair, red glasses, blue dress, red belt, black-and-white polka-dot shoes, and massive hoop earrings. The tasteful support Mayfield’s band provides for her songs is ideal. The well-groomed, well-dressed bassist and guitarist aren’t showy but use impolite amounts of distortion. These savage timbres, made more haunting by bowed bass and slide guitar, belie the subdued tempo and sad mood every number adheres to. That the set feels, at times, like one long prolonged song seems only a testament to her sincerity. She is on message.

C: I’m neither a country nor bluegrass fan, so I resisted listening to The Avett Brothers before the show. I’ll see anybody live, though.

W: Bob Crawford, the bassist, is inscrutable. Endomorphic in a conservative V-neck sweater and slacks, he looks like he should be modeling his upright in a Sears catalog. Seth Avett—with white button-down shirt, long hair, and ridiculous tie—looks like a teenage hippie on prom night. His brother Scott is scruffy effeminate blue-collar angelic. Like true siblings, they seem to dress in hand-me-downs. The Avett Brothers looked all wrong at first, but the chugging banjo was a salve to my rock-bruised ears. Once they get started you see them as they really are—a blur. Pure music.

C: When the band hit the stage, I inwardly groaned in an embarrassingly rock-snob way: “Oh, no! Hipsters who think they’ve discovered Gram Parsons!” I was proven wrong. There isn’t a single thing to dislike about The Avett Brothers. A group of truly fine musicians, they channel an enormous amount of influences—The Everly Brothers, The Beatles, Parsons, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Old 97s, Union Station, and (dare I say) fast, frenetic thrash metal. They’re a blast to watch and radiate the best of live rock: showmanship, adventure, and a crackling chemistry with the audience. To top it off, their vocals are pristine. Seth Avett can alternate abrasive, Cobain-like screams with sweet, sparkling harmonies alongside his brother Scott in one beat.

W: The Avett Brothers say this is their first show of 2008. After their first live song of the year, the guitarist has already broken a string and the banjo player’s pickup has come unplugged. But no strings nor cords can tether these guys to earth. Another broken-hearted song, “Boatloads of Shame,” begins. They have loved and lost early and often, it seems, expressing themes of drinking, distress, and kinship. The music, if bluegrass, is mostly so due to a lead banjo (and a guitarist who manages to mute the strings to create plunking banjoesque textures). But I hear a gumbo of southern Americana, lullabies, sea shanties, punk rock, old-time country, children’s songs, and wailing coyotes.

At times, all the instruments except the bass drop out and the brothers carry the song structure to its next junction using only voice. Though the harmonies are vibrant, the performers are not above such extended vocal techniques as yelling. Recording this force must be like photographing the wind.

There is multi-instrumental talent on display here. Scott plays harmonica. Joe Kwon appears onstage after a few songs to manhandle his cello, sometimes slinging it over his knee like a guitar. And then there are moments where both bass and cello are bowed at the same time, evoking breathtaking bends and fretless vertigo. When the banjo player mounts the drum kit—standing unnoticed at the back of the stage—unnecessary rhythm is added to otherwise perfectly tight arrangements.

During a memorable performance of a song about “Gabriella,” the stage goes black and a sublime cello and guitar summit transpires, Joe and Seth huddled together in the darkness. When the next flicker illuminates the ensemble, we see that the electric bass has been unsheathed. An electric guitar appears to pummel us with standard rock instrumentation, augmented by cello techniques I’m not sure Kwon’s high school band teacher would recommend. After the maelstrom, the stage is swept clean for solo acoustic guitar and an unflinchingly sentimental song about love for family. The audience seems ecstatic at this wholesome release from the guarded cynicism of contemporary life.

C: This just one more piece of evidence that the best bands in America aren’t anywhere near the radio dial. You have to dig deep, do research, and take risks going to the live shows of bands you don’t know. And I think we’re lucky to have live-music venues in Champaign-Urbana that make discovering dynamic musicians possible. You can bet I’ll be seeing this band any chance I get—and purchasing their music. I’m a new fan who’ll be down in front next time, banging my head with the rest of The Avett Brothers cult!

W: The Avett Brothers are from North Carolina. Their show was white hot. And then when we came out, it was snowing.

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