Fans will undoubtedly argue the point, but there has always been a sense of something missing within the music of The Avett Brothers. As far back as its days of playing The Dame as an indie unknown, it was easy to appreciate the band’s rootsy ingenuity more than its songwriting or its performance immediacy over its instrumental prowess. Or maybe all of these integral elements, while helping to establish a rabid band following among college age audiences, simply fell short of creatively colliding.
Last night at Rupp Arena, before a modest sized house of 5,300 and without any opening act as support, it could be justly said that The Avett Brothers had arrived. Its love of pre-bluegrass country inspirations, rockish temperaments and sentimental (often darkly so) narratives seemed in balance as did its far-reaching vocal and instrumental colors. Toss in a batch of new songs from its newest and most realized album (Magpie and the Dandelion, the Avetts’ third collaboration with A-list producer Rick Rubin), an expanded seven-member lineup and an audience that was, by Rupp standards, refreshingly attentive, and you had the making of an Avetts performance that was, at long last, complete.
The most significant plus that siblings Scott and Seth Avett had on their side last night, in contrast to their last Rupp outing in October 2011, was the return of bassist Bob Crawford. A founding member of the band officially billed as The Avett Brothers, this was Crawford’s first Lexington showing after taking a sabbatical to tend to his severely ill daughter. When the core Avetts trio sang the spiritual Just a Closer Walk with Thee around a single microphone with arms around one another, a sense of camaraderie that outweighed perhaps the music itself was revealed.
Curiously, Crawford’s stand in at the 2011 Rupp show, Paul Defiglia, has been retained on this Avetts tour as a keyboardist, fleshing out an auxiliary lineup that also included drummer Mike Marsh and violinist Tania Elizabeth. Cellist Joe Kwon – who save for a brief instance when he was seated during Through My Prayers, never let his instrument touch the stage floor – has been promoted to full membership in the Avett Brothers.
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That leaves the siblings themselves, a pair of wiry, tireless characters that seldom allowed the performance intensity to slip – even during comparatively quiet pieces like Murder in the City (performed solo by Scott Avett) or the set closing I and Love and You (which erupted into a solemn, arena-sized sing-a-long).
The brothers’ exchanges on banjo (Scott) and acoustic guitar (Seth) triggered robust, jamboree style bursts of brittle percussive energy. A case in point was Talk on Indulence, which began with rap-style vocal play before panning out into a rustic and heavily rhythmic instrumental firestorm. But the Magpie tunes impressed the most. Their construction had the band’s strengths unfolding more gradually, like the way Open Ended Life worked itself into a hoedown-like lather before subsiding. Ditto for Souls Like the Wheels, which allowed Seth Avett to plug into electric guitar while maintaining the ensemble’s homespun charm.
There were covers of varying resourcefulness, too. A tropically minded take on the Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson outlaw hit I Can Get Off on You and the Doc Watson-popularized murder ballad Little Sadie were both bullseye hits. But John Denver’s Thank God I’m a Country Boy was an audience pandering misfire, the lone hiccup in a performance by a band of Brothers working with a musical voice that has become beautifully complete.