Over the weekend: The Avett Brothers at the Ogden Theatre
The Avett Brothers, Sally Ford and the Sound Outside
Saturday, Aug. 22
Better than: Most of the shows I've seen this summer.
I never thought I'd see a full-fledged hootenanny on the stage of the Ogden Theatre.
But during choice moments of the Avett Brothers' Saturday set, an appearance that wrapped up a series of four Colorado appearances in as many days, I felt swept up by a communal fervor and zeal that seemed straight out of an old-timey camp meeting. Indeed, the two-hour set whizzed by in what seemed like minutes, and I found myself stomping out rhythms with fellow audience members who, mere moments before, had been complete strangers. It made for a surreal atmosphere.
The effect stemmed from a combination of the Avetts' musical aesthetic - an energetic, impassioned sound rooted in the hybrid structures of vintage bluegrass, folk, gospel and even garage rock - and their contagious enthusiasm, a feature that doesn't fully translate on the group's studio recordings.
Seth and Scott Avett, joined by bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon, offered a seemingly unending store of energy and earnestness. It was a dynamic that they spelled out in their speedy country stomps, their forceful electric rock tunes and their slow, straightforward acoustic ballads. It was a participatory passion that made the cramped floor of the Ogden feel like a backwoods campground, and one that lent the theater's stage the magnetism and urgency of a pulpit.
Sally Ford and the Sound Outside served as a fitting introduction to general aesthetic of the main act. With her clear, sonorous tones, Ford recalled the vocal stylings of a Baptist choir, while the Sound Outside's twangy electric guitar tones and basic folk structures lent the set some modernity. On tunes like "Not an Animal," "Where'd You Go" and "This Crew," Ford's folksy intonations sailed over loping rhythms and slightly distorted guitar lines. The songs, largely rooted in basic blues and folk formats, offered bits of both old and new in terms of sound and appeal, an apt preview for the main act.
By the end of Ford's set, the floor in front of the stage, the balcony and the theater's side wings had reached capacity.
As the crew switched the onstage gear, the communal audience response that would mark the entire show started to kick in - the majority of the crowd chanted the opening section for "Go to Sleep" and an almost palpable energy started to grow.
It was a contagious feeling, one that ramped up rapidly as the band took the stage and belted out their opening numbers in different configurations. The opening tune, "Signs," saw a trio format, with Scott and Seth Avett playing banjo and guitar with Crawford on bass. The following tune, "Pretty Girl from Raleigh," saw the addition of Kwon on cello. Such changes in the lineup would persist for the entire set, with both Avett brothers taking stints on the drum set and Seth playing the outro on the song "Paranoia in B Major."
The switches would include more than just instrumentation. The sound of the band's set veered from the garage rock speed and insistence of songs like "My Heart's Like a Kick Drum" from the forthcoming album I and Love and You, to the pained, stark sounds of ballads like "Murder in the City" and "Tear Down the House." Both Seth and Scott Avett took stints playing and singing solo for the crowd.
For all the variety in sound, in song structure and in instrumentation, the group maintained a sense of vitality and vigor that made the shifts in the set seamless, and that made the music seem spontaneous and natural. The approach found a complement in Kwon's cello lines, which alternated between subtly evocative and explosively powerful. Crawford, who alternated between stand-up and electric bass offered a solid foundation for the group's diverse menu of tunes.
The band seemed to operate with no fixed set list; in between tunes, the group would huddle in the center of the stage, seeming to confer about what song to play next. Even though the performance of "Pretty Girl from Chile" included a pre-recorded section, a voice message included in the original studio version, the majority of the set seemed plucked from the band members' momentary whims.
Along with the group's sterling harmonies, its flawlessly picked acoustic lines and its invigorating spates on the drums, this quality of unpredictability made the show seem even more like an improvised performance for friends.
When the band actually performed "Go to Sleep," the crowd once again took up its concerted chanting of the opening strain, and the group seemed all the more energized by the participation. The widespread participation continued through the final two songs of the encore, "Black, Blue" and "Four Thieves Gone."
When the group left the stage for good, the heady and powerful effect of the set quickly evaporated. The physical confines of the theater gelled back into place, and the odd sensation of being in some rural camp meeting dissipated.
But the feeling left a clear impact, a desire for more of the same. The fact that so many fans in attendance had traveled to the shows in Telluride, Steamboat Springs and Boulder suddenly made a lot more sense.
Personal Bias: At last year's Monolith Festival at Red Rocks, the band's performance of "Tear Down the House" sparked my interest in the band. Nearly a year and ten albums later, the live performance of the same tune at the Ogden proved especially noteworthy.
Random Detail: During a bass solo, Crawford played the key lines from Led Zeppelin's "How Many More Times."
By the Way: I ran into several friends and strangers who had followed the group for their four Colorado dates. I met a few more who'd followed the band across the country, driving from state to state for shows.
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