A venue such as the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ is best known for its run of concerts every summer which include some combination of blankets strewn across its lawn, hot nights, cold beer, tailgating (when they still properly allow it), and great live music. This past Friday night, Sept. 23, North Carolina’s native sons, The Avett Brothers, played PNC for their biggest Garden State show yet. Their previous New Jersey appearances were at the Appel Farm Arts & Music Festival in Elmer in June 2010, and the legendary Stone Pony in Asbury Park in July of 2008. So as the band’s popularity has increased, naturally so have the venues they have played. The Arts Center was transformed into an intimate theater setting fitting for the band, as the lawn section was closed off for this show, with tickets limited to the inner bowl of reserved seats. With a torrential downpour outside the covered area, you wouldn’t have heard anyone in the audience complaining.
Many groups from out of state usually don’t think much of this anonymous central Jersey stop, especially after having shared a stage with Mumford & Sons and the folk king Bob Dylan earlier this year for a legendary performance at the Grammys. Part of the mystique and charm of this band however, is their personable nature and a genuine openness to their audiences. Brothers and bandleaders, Seth and Scott Avett, took several moments out of the concert to show their appreciation to the crowd, explaining how New Jersey had been very kind to them for many years leading up to this point, something they’ve never forgotten. This is also a bond kept fresh in their minds by the band’s longtime bassist Bob Crawford, a New Jersey native, who unfortunately couldn’t play with them that evening for undisclosed reasons. Some more Jersey love would come a bit later in the set.
The band’s stage setup turns the traditional rock show on its head, with the conventional drum kit at the back of stage center the only standard. Scott Avett stands front and center, banjo in tow, with a weathered bass kick drum at his feet that he pounds with an unrelenting force it seems miraculous that it didn’t explode open several songs into the set. To Scott’s left is brother Seth, acoustic guitar clutched like a battle ax, and a hi-hat symbol at his feet. With just as much ferocity that Scott and Seth put into their playing and singing, Joe Kwon put into his cello playing, looking like his body was for that two hours inhabited by Eddie Van Halen masterfully wielding a classical instrument. The crowd obliged and praised Kwon, and he is obviously an essential part of the band’s live shows.
Opening the set with the powerful “And It Spread” from their latest groundbreaking album, I And Love And You, the Avett Brothers sprung with a raw energy at the beginning of their show that’s usually reserved for a closing number. The high energy and deep connection continued with fan favorites “Shame,” “Go To Sleep,” (which induced a crowd campfire singalong during the song’s “La la” coda) and “Paranoia in Bb Major.” Then, a staple to the Avett Brothers setlists, “Murder In The City,” brought brothers Seth and Scott together on the mic, for what is one of the most honest songs about brotherhood and family ever written. It’s even more poignant when sung by two siblings who live through that emotion every day and onstage every night.
Behind the piano for “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” Scott provided one of the evening’s many melodic marvels. The six songs from this latest album balanced the set nicely with their earlier work that is at times rougher around the edges. With the unparalleled energy coupled with their raw musical skills, each song was played with as much passion as the last, and the crowd fed off that energy all night. New Jersey native, Nicole Atkins, joined the band to share vocals and added a soft touch to their track “Pretend Love.” This was a nice breather to precede their most explosive song which came several tunes later, “Talk On Indolence” featuring a combination of a half rapped/half sung intro, power chord chorus, funky bass groove, and cymbal kicking, yes cymbal kicking. Not your typical folk concert. This was followed by “Kick Drum Heart,” the closest thing to a pop song they’ve written yet without the worry of selling themselves out.
Slowing things down a bit toward the end of the set, “January Wedding” and main set closer “I And Love And You,” as well as their new song “The Once And Future Carpenter,” were the other standouts of the show. Another slower song from the I And Love And You album, “Laundry Room” closed the show besting the album version, and the vocal harmonies of Seth and Scott were as pure and intuitive seemingly as only brothers could sing. They included the crowd in a sped up closing of the song fit for the stage as they sang with a satisfying conviction, “I am a breathing time machine, I’ll take you all for a ride” to an audience that had just returned from one.
1. And It Spread
2. Denouncing November Blue
4. Will You Return?
5. Go To Sleep
6. Down With The Shine
7. Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise
8. Murder In The City
9. Paranoia in Bb Major
10. Way Down (John Prine Cover)
11. Pretend Love (with Nicole Atkins)
12. The Fall
13. Talk On Indolence
14. Kick Drum Heart
16. January Wedding
17. The Once And Future Carpenter
18. Pretty Girl From Cedar Lane
19. I And Love And You
20. Hard Worker
21. Laundry Room