The proceedings could not have started more simply. On the Rupp Arena stage Thursday night, before a crowd of 4,300, was a single microphone surrounded by the evening's three featured performers: opening act Jessica Lea Mayfield and headlining brothers Scott and Seth Avett.
The song, Mayfield's For Today, was a suitably twisted love parable full of fevered restlessness. But when the Avetts joined in the chorus, the tune became something less fearful. It sounded like an indie-pop variation of a campfire song. Mayfield's twilight-hued lyrics might have driven the story, but the harmonies touched on the kind of primitive blues, folk and even country that the Avetts have made very much their own over the past decade.
When the Avetts' featured set emerged later in the program, such simplicity was stripped down, reconstructed and generally turned inside out in a performance full of combustible physical energy, story lines of hippie-esque hope that would do the Grateful Dead proud, and a musical vocabulary that never seemed to run short of invention.
The set-opening Salina was a marvelous case in point. It began — again, simply — with banjoist Scott Avett piloting the tune as if it were a regal hymn. Then the pace quickened, a sense of foot-stomping faith took over (along with a transfer of lead vocal duties to guitarist Seth Avett; such a tag-team approach was deployed throughout the evening) and a curious coda commenced that sent the latter Avett brother to the piano. Cello, bowed string bass and wordless, high-tenor harmonies then made the finale sound like a cross between the Moody Blues and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
But what ignited the performance, and what has undoubtedly helped trigger and sustain the Avetts' grass-roots fan base in recent years, was a sort of modern hootenanny demeanor. Cellist Joe Kwon might have provided an unconventional (but most welcome) accent to standard hootenanny strategies. But the barnstorming fun that the Avett Brothers summoned — whether it was from the full quintet charge of And It Spread (which added drummer Jacob Edwards to the mix), the kick drum-fueled quartet version of I Killed Sally's Lover or the all-out punkish stomp of Go to Sleep — seldom dipped during the 90-minute-plus set.
There were some nice variations in this oddly rootsy mix, too — most notably Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise, which mixed Dylan-esque narratives with a piano-fueled, chantey-style melody.
One of the performance highlights, in fact, suggested where the Avett Brothers' musical odyssey might be headed next. The new and as-yet-unreleased Once and Future Carpenter, a quieter acoustic tune, blended perhaps obvious spiritual references with an earthy sense of fate ("My life is a coin pulled from an empty pocket").
It should be noted also that the Avett Brothers were without the services Thursday night of longtime bassist Bob Crawford, who is on leave from the band to care for his 22-month-old daughter. She is recovering from a stroke and brain-tumor surgery. In his place was former Langhorne Slim bassist Paul Defiglia, who provided a tamer but resourceful foundation for the Avetts' music.
The rest of Mayfield's opening set, which she performed solo, was full of refreshingly obtuse love songs that ran from the boozy, poetic unease of Nervous Lonely Night ("Will you still be my friend when I go insane?") to the more replenishing Blue Skies Again.
Admittedly, an opening slot on an arena bill is probably not the ideal way to experience Mayfield. But if that means more people get introduced to the torchy intimacy of her songs, then a night out at Rupp with the Avetts was a fruitful venture indeed.