Avett Brothers shake things up at Verizon

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ALPHARETTA, Ga. – Emmylou Harris, closer to 70 than not and rocking the most luxuriant silver hair in all the world of music for nearly half a century, stayed true to her folksy roots with her Wrecking Ball tour the evening of Friday, July 25. (Thankfully, it had nothing to do with Miley Cyrus. It was the title of an album she released two decades ago.)

She said she felt like Minnie Pearl: “Proud to be here. It feels good to be surrounded by all the sights, smells and sounds of the South, being born a neighbor over in Alabama.”

Harris’ career has been long and rife with success, winning her 13 Grammys (so far). She had an idyllic childhood, enjoying popularity as a cheerleader and valedictorian and attending college on a drama scholarship. She dropped out to pursue her musical career.

When she was 16, Harris wrote Pete Seeger a six-page letter asking him if he thought she could possibly be a folk singer, having never experienced the pain and heartbreak that seemed to be its bedrock. He gently told her that time would provide enough.

Townes Van Zandt has said that there are only two kinds of music – blues and Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah. So, Harris decided she would just make some sad stuff up. Her plaintive soprano brings the hurt and heartache, winning fans and awards for more than 50 years now.

Her melancholy “Red Dirt Girl” tells a too-common tale of the fate of many a country girl. My favorite song of the evening was the haunting “Michelangelo” with its mournful moaning chorus.

She closed with Paul Kennerley’s “Born to Run,” which is a far cry from The Boss’ galvanic anthem of the same name. She gently sang of putting on her travelin’ shoes. And it’s a good thing. We’ll never tire of hearing the Silver Belle tolling out her wistful stories. I hope she keeps them on for another decade or so.

Two-Hour Zumba Class

A jungle beat by drummer Mike Marsh splits the dark as the Avett Brothers opened their no-holds-barred musical extravaganza with “Satan Pulls the Strings.” This newest song premiered two weeks ago at their three-night residence at Red Rocks and will be on their next album. This is only the second time they have played it for an audience.

Dim spots take in Bob Crawford and Tania Elizabeth as they appear with their dueling fiddles, then cellist Joe Kwon faces off with Elizabeth, and Paul DiFiglia drags out his double bass to play with Crawford. A roar rises as brothers Scott on banjo and Seth on guitar take center stage. It. Is. On.

A minimalist set with a several retro Klieg lights was all they needed. Thankfully, they only fired them up a few times, as they were all aimed at us. Although made charming by the collection of fans’ signs affixed to the rear – especially one that said, “Tae Kwon Joe!” – the band easily has the ugliest piano touring today. It looks like it has been given one streaky coat of white house paint.

From the get-go, the hyper-caffeinated crew had the audience all hopped up. The joint was literally jumping. One unusual thing that I have never noticed before was that the images of the band projected on the screen were actually shaking from the harmonic vibration of five of the seven performers literally jumping up and down as they played. They must have to retire the oriental rugs underfoot on a quarterly basis from all the stomping and scuffling they endure.

Two- and three-night stands are not unusual for these pigeon-hole-defying punkgrass rockers. They literally and figuratively are all over the place musically – from rockabilly to straight-up rock and roll. They have so many songs out on so many albums, that even with three-night shows they don’t repeat any.

Fiddle-player Elizabeth wore a Native American-looking dress with lots of fringe that added even more kinetic energy to her performance. Mad props to her for doing all the hopping and stomping as the guys do in high heels! Between her shoes and Kwon’s non-ergonomic instrument position, I hope they have a chiropractor, reflexologist and massage therapist in their retinue.

Kwon was born in Korea, but grew up in North Carolina. He attended boarding school in California. I’m sure classical music lessons were a part of his upbringing, and that his former teachers must be agog at the path he has taken.

He blogs about food on the road, saying that they have to eat right, sleep enough and get some exercise to bear up under the strain of putting out the over-the-top energy they expend every night.

One often hears of guitarists being called shredders, but Elizabeth and Kwon were literally shredding the horsehair off their bows. Kwon is especially intriguing, as I don’t believe there’s another cellist who rocks it as hard as he does, jumping and dancing with his instrument hooked on his neck. His redlining technique has earned him an endorsement from a string company. He must go through a whole orchestra section’s worth every week.

Kwon admits that it is pretty hard on his back and neck, but it is apparent he is so into it that it’s worth it to him. He developed his unique style after his first 30 seconds of sitting on stage with the two blood brothers. With them carrying on as they do, it didn’t seem fitting for him to sit there like he was playing in a symphony.

It looked like some were off their Ritalin, but it’s all to the good for their devotees. After seeing these boys (and Elizabeth) bouncing for the better part of two hours through two dozen songs, I can only imagine the challenges their mother had when they were in their hyperactive years of puberty.

I’m sure she thanked God when they became interested in music as an outlet for their monumental energy. They played two nights in a row at Verizon, with no duplications on the set list.

While only two of the group are actually brothers, it’s apparent that the non-Avetts feel like brothers from other mothers. Bassist Crawford has had much need of that fraternal support as his family deals with their little 7-year-old daughter’s five-year fight with a brain tumor.

He had to take some time off from touring to take her to St. Jude’s Hospital, where they were grateful to discover it is 100 percent without charge, after they were told their insurance would not cover her treatment. Through various drives, Avetts and Co. have raised over $150,000 to help Hallie Crawford and other families in similar need.

At one point, after playing in front of the proverbial plain white T of backdrops, they released the featureless sheet to reveal a complex rendering of the art from the cover of their “Magpie and the Dandelion” album. The crowd went wild.

“Die! Die! Die!” was noteworthy for its refrain of what usually is a monosyllable nonsense sound, but in this case it was actually about dying. But they’re so cute and upbeat, with Kwon holding his instrument, strumming it like a guitar and then do-si-doing with it, it sounds like just another good-time song.

“Live or Die” is such a plucky little ditty, it could be the theme song for a kids’ movie like “The Fox and the Hound.” It was used in the film “This is 40,” and they have had many other songs picked up for television series, shows and a documentary.

A highlight was when they brought Emmylou Harris out to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with them. The Carter Family couldn’t have sung it better. “Salvation Song” has some noble lyrics, especially stirring when they sang the final refrain a cappella: “We came to break the bad. We came to cheer the sad. We came to leave the world a better way.” Mission already accomplished, gentleman and lady.

MH-8-6