After about nine years, six studio albums, two live ones and three EPs—plus what Seth Avett estimates at 1,500 to 2,000 live shows—North Carolina's Avett Brothers suddenly seem poised to get really big, really fast.
Seth laughs. "I'm sure you appreciate the irony there. That's the feeling. Everyone ... well, not everyone, but some people are saying, 'You're about to blow up,' or whatever that means. OK, well, we're about to blow up after the better part of a decade. But, maybe; maybe not."
Seth, who mostly plays acoustic guitar and piano, and his brother, Scott, who mostly plays banjo and drums, started the Avett Brothers in 2000 while their "heavy rock band" Nemo was crumbling around them. (Current stand-up bassist Bob Crawford replaced an earlier member soon after, and the band's lineup has remained constant since. All three members also sing.)
"It just felt natural," explains Seth, speaking on the phone from New Orleans hours before the group's first appearance at Jazz Fest. "Scott and I, we've played a lot of heavy music, and we adore heavy music, but we were kind of bucking our history ... We grew up on 60 acres of pasture and a small farm. ... We didn't want to present that we had come from the country. ... We started playing guitar and banjo, and just singing these songs, and it just felt so natural and so good, that we just needed to run with it."
The result is that the Avett Brothers don't really sound like anything else out there. When I attempt a description for Seth—"a rock band that plays with the energy of punk, on bluegrass instruments"—he replies, "That is as fair as it could be. All those elements are laid right out there. ... The reality of it is that we're coming from a lot of places musically, and we love a lot of music between all of us. ... It's pretty obvious that there's a lot of rock in our background. I don't think that's any kind of surprise to anybody that's seen us live."
The sheer energy and exuberance of the band's live shows resembles nothing so much as an all-inclusive tent revival, and that's been key to winning over new fans. It's not uncommon for an audience in any particular town to double from one show to the next—which is exactly what happened at the band's last two shows at the Rialto Theatre—largely due to word of mouth.
"(Word of mouth has) definitely been our bread and butter from the beginning," says Seth. "It wasn't, 'Hey, let's try to get on some television show, and that way, we'll get a ton of fans.' It was always, 'Let's do this one person at a time, and see if we can interest them and share the thing we do with them, and hopefully, they'll like it.'"
The folks at the Rialto are so confident "they'll like it" that when the band returns for a show next Thursday, May 7, they're offering a money-back guarantee within the band's first 10 songs. "It's because we believe that it's impossible to see these guys and want a refund," says Curtis McCrary, the Rialto's general manager (and an occasional Weekly contributor). "But if anyone does, they're entitled to it."
If we're to believe the buzz on the band's upcoming album, I and Love and You, scheduled for an Aug. 11 release, this may be one of the last chances to see the Avett Brothers in such an intimate venue. (On their current tour, they're alternating between headlining at smaller venues and opening for the Dave Matthews Band in arenas.) Most of their previous work was released on their manager's label, Ramseur Records, while the new album will be released on American/Columbia. And, oh yeah, it was produced by Rick Rubin, one of the most highly respected and sought-after producers in the business.
Where their previous full-length, 2007's Emotionalism, was recorded, overdubbed, mixed and mastered in 11 days ("generally our pace," says Seth), I and Love and You was recorded over about a month in two studios, one in Malibu, Calif., and one in Asheville, N.C., and it's still being tinkered with. Seth is clearly very proud of the record, but talks about it in typical modest, Southern gentlemanly fashion.
"Basically," he says, "it felt like it was almost an attempt for us, with Rick, together, to take a good band, and to get a first glimpse of what it might take to become a great band. And I've never really understood the difference."