Just more than six years ago, a little-known North Carolina outfit with an energized string band sound that owed more to rock and soul than to country or bluegrass tradition made its way into town to play before a curious handful of listeners at the now-defunct Dame.
The band returned in 2007 and sold out the club. Coinciding with a signing to a major record label and an even more esteemed producer in 2009 was a sold-out show at The Kentucky Theatre. Now as touring schedules begin to wind down for 2011, a date has been set at the big house: Rupp Arena. And if local buzz is any indication, the show is shaping up to be the biggest non-country performance at the arena this year.
Such is the earnest, eventual road to stardom that The Avett Brothers have followed.
"Performances, just like everything else in our career have been a very gradual process," said guitarist/ vocalist Seth Avett. "And we're quite well off because of that. We've taken every step very slowly and very surely.
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"Luckily for us, we didn't go from playing smaller places to immediately playing enormous arenas. We built our way up to theaters first, so the whole process has been gradual. We've had time to process it all, digest it all and figure out what works in larger spaces. Mainly, we've found what works in a big place is very much what works in a small place — meaning, feeling natural and feeling like yourself up there onstage.
"If you can do that, you can get down to the work at hand, which is playing these songs as well as you can and connecting with the folks at the shows and having a good time at it. The worst thing that can happen at any live show is for you to feel disconnected with an audience. Large venues can make a performer feel that way. But we feel really at home on bigger stages now. And since Lexington has always been a place with a lot of love for us, we won't have any reservations about getting in front of a lot of folks. We've had nothing but good experiences there."
The rise to arena-level stardom is perhaps less obvious for a band like The Avett Brothers because its music is so removed from anything else in the pop mainstream. Working initially in a more rockish ensemble called Nemo before striking out on their own, Seth, 31, and his banjo-playing brother Scott Avett, 35, used variations of string band tradition for a rougher, more energized sound. Through constant touring and a set of well-received indie recordings, the Avetts began forging a grass-roots fan base for what remains a distinctive sound.
"Even between Scott and I, our influences are different," Avett said. "He leans his own way. I lean another way. For example, I love calypso music from Trinidad that was imported in the '50s and '60s. Scott leans more towards old-time country blues. But the odd thing was we didn't grow up listening to bluegrass. We were aware of the country music of the day because that's what our dad liked. And we were aware of all of the pop of the day, stuff like Hall & Oates and Michael Jackson.
"But we were drawn to stuff like (Led) Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and (Jimi) Hendrix. And later, it was the grunge movement. A light was switched on by bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana. A lot of elements collided for us to do what we do, and we eventually became aware of all the great American roots music that came out of the South and the region where we're from. At the same time, we really enjoyed playing with just guitar, banjo and our voices. That really simplified the whole thing."
The Avetts Brothers hit pay dirt with the release of its first major-label album, 2009's I and Love and You — a recording that streamlined its multistylistic sound under the direction of celebrated producer Rick Rubin. Recording for a second album with Rubin is almost done. The as-yet- untitled album should see release in 2012.
"On the first album with Rick, there was no getting around the fact that we were opening a lot of new doors," Seth Avett said. "The whole working relationship with Rick was new. Now we're really good friends."