By Wade Tatangelo
The Avett Brothers are the fresh new faces of folk-rock. The North Carolina trio smartly melds bluegrass, old timey country and contemporary singer/songwriter introspection.
In concert, the group gooses its pastoral sonics with an ebullient punk sensibility. It's a distinctive sound that adroitly updates the timeworn 1960s template — and recently enticed Rick Rubin. He's the super producer who has handled hits for everyone from Jay-Z to Metallica to Johnny Cash. Rubin helmed the Avetts' major label debut I and Love and You. Sony will issue the album Sept. 29. "We're very, very excited to get it out there and start representing it proper on stage," said Scott Avett, the group's lead singer/banjoist/co-bandleader, during a recent phone interview.
For a large set of local music enthusiasts, the Avett Brothers' performance Saturday at the Cuban Club Bandshell in Ybor City ranks as one of the year's most highly anticipated. When community radio station WMNF (88.5) brought the band to Skipper's Smokehouse in December 2007, the Avetts easily sold out the 800-capacity venue in north Tampa.
The band's breakthrough album Emotionalism finished No. 8 on WMNF's "Most Played CDs During 2008" tally. It also became the group's first disc to crack the Billboard 200, reaching No. 1 on the Top Heatseekers survey.
WMNF had the Avetts booked to perform last Oct. 23 at the Cuban Club but they had to cancel because of the birth of Scott Avett's daughter, Eleanor. The trio, which also includes Scott's younger brother Seth Avett (guitar/vocals) and Bob Crawford (stand-up bass), rescheduled for May 16. Alas, they postponed again to tour 20,000-capacity sheds opening for the Dave Matthews Band. But Scott promises to make it up to fans on Saturday.
"We're real sorry about that," he said. "I've seen pictures of where we're going to play and it looks really cool."
In addition to hearing favorites from Emotionalism, concertgoers will be treated to material from I and Love and You. Scott who is in his early 30s, explained that piano and drums play a more prominent role on this recording than on past efforts — with his gentle banjo plucking only surfacing on a handful of tracks. Rubin's role seemed to be that of an expert editor, capable of getting the best out of the songwriters.
"In the world of art and in the world of music, you do run into things that just don't work," Scott said. "What Rick served as, among other things, was a third or fourth set of ears that could say, 'That's just not convincing me.' "
But don't expect the Avetts to slavishly recreate their new album in concert. The trio's meticulously crafted studio work has always had a somber, more down tempo quality than the band's decidedly peppier live presentations.
"We've really gotten to a point where we just embrace that," Scott said. "Maybe someday the two will cross paths, but we're not going to sit there and try and make a recording a concert experience."
All the more reason to catch the Avetts live. When we checked in with WMNF program director Randy Wynne on July 9, more than half the tickets for the 1,500-capacity Cuban Club Bandshell had been sold.