Two years ago, I attended my first live Avett Brothers concert – one of their annual New Year's Eve shows, this one a rare venture outside of North Carolina in Greenville, South Carolina's Bi-Lo Center1. Though I'd been casually introduced to the Avett Brothers' music a few years prior, it took me some time to warm to them, finally slipping into my realm of obsession in the year leading up to my first New Year's Eve experience2.
As it happened, I fell in love with the Avett Brothers' music just as they were starting to hit the mainstream consciousness – which means I was jumping on the bandwagon that drove some hard core fans out. The timing coincided with the relative success hangover of I and Love and You, the Avetts' first partnership with producer Rick Rubin. Rubin ushered in the current era of muted, technically tight recordings that, if we're being honest, seems to have simultaneously zapped the life out of the Avetts' recordings. And though I recognize it as the album that "brought me in", I've never considered it their best. As I familiarized myself with the band's previous records, I quickly cozied up to Emotionalism, and tracks like "Shame", "Ballad of Love and Hate", and "I Would Be Sad" started to make frequent appearances on playlists and mix discs.
When I really think about it, the Avett Brothers album I've enjoyed most these last few years is Live, Vol. 3, an album they recorded at Bojangles Coliseum in 2009, just before the release of I and Love and You3. Live, Vol. 3 includes epic performances of many longtime Avett favorites, but the album stands out for another reason. That is, when I think about my favorite tracks from that live album, many of them are tracks from I and Love and You. The transformation of I and Love and You tracks from their respective studio incarnation to the live stage is so significant that the songs take on entirely different personalities. "Kick Drum Heart" experiences the most significant transformation. Compared to its live counterpart, the studio recording of "Kick Drum Heart" sounds like someone wrapped the group in cellophane and doped their beverages with dramamine for the record. Even decent studio tracks like "Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise" and "Laundry Room" sound fuller, densely layered, and more elegantly composed on the stage than their stripped-down but over-produced studio cuts.
Many rock bands are revered and lauded for stage performances that overshadow their studio recordings. My musical evolution traversed the production-heavy pop and R&B 80s and 90s, which means my experience in following bands from the studio to the stage had the opposite result. Often, it was difficult for groups I loved to recreate their studio magic on stage. But the Avett Brothers aren't just a casualty to their genre in the studio. Predecessors to I and Love and You – Mignonette, Four Thieves Gone, and Emotionalism – all managed to capture at least some of the raw energy and fun that pervades an Avett stage show. The coincidence seems almost too significant to ignore, but perhaps the production values and qualities ushered in by the Rick Rubin era are exactly the impetus for this widening gap between the Avetts' stage and studio personalities.
Ultimately, I've decided that I and Love and You is a so-so expression of a masterpiece manuscript. Fortunately, the Avett Brothers carry this manuscript with them where ever they go, and they refer to it often with each and every stage show. And with every show, the audience, if they're lucky, gets a chance to reread the manuscript, finding new words, little nuances of tone and tenor that form a more deserving expression of the masterpiece within.
- Where I also have family. Fun city.↩
- Asheville, NC; Greenville, SC; and Greensboro, NC for 2010-2012, respectively. It’s back home to Charlotte for this year’s show.↩
- Though it was recorded prior to the release of I and Love and You and includes live versions of a few of its tracks, Live, Vol. 3 wasn't released until nearly a year after ILY.↩