Avett Brothers please fans at the Zoo amphitheater

Avett Brothers
Weesner Amphitheater, June 27
Review and video by Carl Atiya Swanson
Photos by Stacy Schwartz

Strange as it may seem to schlep yourself all the way out to Apple Valley and pay $5 for parking (the Zoo's extra Ticketmaster fee), the amphitheater at the zoo is a great place to see a show, weather permitting. The steep slope of the curved seating mean that even up high there are clear sightlines to the stage, the clouds above and the lake behind are a calming presence and there is a sense of intimacy that mask the fact that the amphitheater fits around 1500.  Make those 1500 an excitable, dancing whooping crowd, and you are in for a good time, just like last Saturday night with the Avett Brothers.

Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers opened, a young band garnering praise for their touring and for their debut full-length Songs in the Night. Crain is short, and took the stage with a smiling face wearing a summery dress and cowboy boots. Wrangling a black guitar, she broke into a series of energetic countrified tunes, complete with twangs and high-stepping dancing. Although the first songs were alt-country, with her extended vocal swoops that had a slight nasal edge and a distinctly softened sibilant "s," Crain's phrasing owed more to pop vocalists such as Fiona Apple than the Lucinda Williams that played over the sound system at the beginning of the night, an incongruously charming combination.

After "Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher," a soft ballad with sharp heartbreak lyrics that built to a clattering finish, Crain changed it up with "Lions," an upbeat number with definite brit-pop overtones. The Midnight Shivers as a band added a lot of texture to the show, developing into more than just a backing band for a singer-songwriter. Guitarist Stephen Sebastian nailed those drawn out strums for a country feel and also turned up the reverb for the more rock numbers while bass player Andrew Tanz provided extra vocal harmonies and drummer Jacob Edwards chimed in with Dylanesque harmonicas. One of the highlights of the opening set was when the Avett Brothers' bassist Bob Crawford joined the band onstage to play trumpet. He told the audience that the Samantha Crain record was his and his wife's favorite of the year, and that kind of excited goodwill was the sentiment of the evening.

By the time Crain and the Shivers left the stage, the crowd had built to capacity and buzzed while the gear was set up, passing the time by doing the wave around the semi-circle of the amphitheater. Clapping and cheering grew until the band bounded onto stage and the whole place was on it's feet. The Avett Brothers are building a buzz for themselves in advance of the August release of I and Love and You, what promises to be a thick cut of bluegrassy rock produced by Rick Rubin. While the crowd at the amphitheater may be anxiously awaiting that disc, they were familiar with the Avett's back catalog, calling out song requests and singing along from the get go. There seemed to be nothing more joyful than a crowd of people singing out, "Nobody knows it but I am so sad!"

Fronted by brothers Scott and Seth Avett on banjo and guitar respectively, the brothers are full of twitchy, bouncy energy and have a back-and-forth both between and in songs that borders on comedy. Rounded out by Crawford, who swings his upright bass like a dance partner and James Kwon, who somehow, miraculously, like a magician's floating assistant, plays cello standing up and dancing they have an undeniably kinetic presence. The Avetts also had a lone kick-drum and hi-hat in front to provide percussion when no-one was manning the full kit in the back, adding to the feel that more was happening than just the sum of parts. Even though there were a couple miscues, nothing stopped moving and Seth said the band was "embarrass-proof" about technical difficulties. When his guitar-pickups went on the fritz he simply jumped to the keyboard and Scott had two banjos in rotation, as one was always being re-strung in anticipation of the next broken string.

The Avett Brothers- I and Love and You- Zoo, 6/27/2009 from Stacy Cupcake on Vimeo.

The high energy carried the set, even as midway through the fourth song, a light sprinkle blew up, dappling the lake behind the stage. The rain didn't dampen any spirits nor any energy from the crowd or stage and as it passed, the sweet, clean smell of summer filled the air and joined the ending strains "Sixteen in July." Later in the set Scott looked up at the crowd, beaming, and proclaimed, "You are a real fun audience to play for. There is a lot of love in the air." This was especially true on the two solo turns; Seth sang "My Last Song to Jenny" mid-set and Scott took "Murder in the City" for the encore -- the crowd that had been roaring a moment before hushed silent to hear every word and bending intonation.

It wasn't the setting sun or the breeze from the lake that made the show special; it was the Avetts themselves. Red-blooded enough to make rollicking music, sensitive enough to write sharp lyrics, joyful enough to just dance and loving enough to break your heart and put it back together again, that's what made special; Them and Love and Us.

Set List:
Left On Laura, Left On Lisa
A Carolina Jubilee
Heart Like A Kick Drum
Sixteen in July
Paranoia in Bb Major
Famous Flower of Manhattan
I and Love and You
At The Beach
Salvation Song
My Last Song to Jenny
Go To Sleep
More Of
Living of Love

Murder in the City
St. Joseph's

--Carl Atiya Swanson

Photographer Stacy Schwartz and writer Carl Atiya Swanson are co-founders of local music blog Cake in 15.