CLEARWATER — The folks behind the Clearwater Jazz Holiday have guts and gumption, and so do the Avett Brothers, the four-day fest's hard-stompin' alt-folk finale. And if the 33rd version of the Coachman Park event commenced with a harrumph of farewell free music, goodbye traditional jazz acts, it ended with a shaggy bear hug and an all-is-well nod to the future.
Jazzbo boobirds will always peck at the fest for genre-smooshing — blues guitarist Bonnie Raitt kickstarted things Thursday — but let 'em gripe all they want. If the Avetts proved anything, it's that pushing the musical envelope can be an invigorating thing, especially when it draws a massive crowd of young and old, scruffy teens and well-heeled oldsters, all of whom left this Jazz Holiday more than eager for the next.
And yes, this was the first year the event charged for tickets, but to see the Avetts — arguably the hottest, most current act the Jazz Holiday has booked in years — for as little as $10 is a remarkable steal. Hey, I dig gratis goods as much as the next cheapskate, but the Avetts, touring behind new album The Carpenter, were a priceless rush, an experience, a modern melding of the Band and the Dead with a contempo twist.
Backed by three equally adept touring mates, Scott Avett (on banjo) and Seth Avett (on guitar), with "official brother" Bob Crawford (on bass), are a peculiar trio for sure, opening their two-hour set with the rambunctious neo-rockabilly Go to Sleep and Will You Return? before side-stepping into the bent waltz of Down With the Shine, all of it sepia-toned in circa-'70s desert rock.
Much like roots-rock peers Mumford & Sons and, to an extent, the Zac Brown Band, the Avett Brothers appeal to macho men and great swaths of swoony women, making the girls sigh with the delicate mountain ballad January Wedding (performed by Seth) and making the guys fist-pump with Distraction #74 (performed by Scott), which commenced with a cheeky rustic rap. (Scott can also get downright punk at times, a hootenanny with a rebel yell.)
The only time the bros wandered close to jazz was on the occasional ragtimey breakdown — these dudes lovvve to jam, don'tcha know — and yet the slick improvisation was there as well as crack, inventive musicianship.
The Avetts are the ideal argument for why the Jazz Holiday should evolve, become more of a catchall for smart, eclectic bands who have no use for elitist genre loyalty.
In fact, as the set grew longer, the influences grew more varied: the Beatles-esque harmonizing on the power-pop of Slight Figure of Speech, the tender bro-on-bro vocal glory of Murder in the City. The crowd hooted and hollered for most of the epic set, and yet it fell near-silent when the Seth, Scott and Bob gathered close 'round a center mike for the classic gospel hush of Just a Closer Walk With Thee.
For local music fans hungry for a moving experience, their prayers were answered, salvation at a bargain price.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.