When the Avett Brothers announced that they would be adding the State Theatre to their spring tour, as a special thanks to the town that had always been there for them, tickets were sold out months before the show. The venue might be small for a band that is currently headlining music festivals like Bonnaroo alongside with Radiohead and occupying concert halls like New York City’s Terminal 5. On Saturday night, however, the Ithacan crowd did not seem in any way unworthy of the band nor did the Avett Brothers seem too grown up for the venue. The only thing that was missing, unfortunately, was their bassist, Bob Crawford.
The brothers, Scott on banjo and Seth on guitar, kicked off the show with “The Lowering,” one of the more heart wrenching numbers off the album Four Thieves Gone. It was a good choice for an adoring audience that could appreciate both an older song and a slower start. However, the band quickly showed off its versatility by transitioning into two of its more upbeat and catchy numbers,“Paranoia in B-Flat Major” followed by “Tin Man.”
What is most apparent live, and what makes the Avett Brothers stand out, is its dedication to its audience, which may largely be due to the brothers’ small town beginnings. Before either hit album, Emotionalism or I and Love and You, the brothers were known for staying for hours after their concerts, until they had talked to every waiting fan.
They still bring this singular ardor to the stage today, and this could be seen in songs like “Salina” and “Ballad of Love and Hate,” both off of the Emotionalism album. The audience sang every word of both songs, and jeered playfully when Scott despairingly sang the lyrics, “New York quit calling / New York leave me be.”
The audience was truly diverse. There were beer drinking college kids standing next to daughters sitting on their father’s shoulders. But old or young, locally grown or not, they were all united in their love for the band. When Seth started performing “Ballad,” as a solo acoustic act, audience members hushed one another, until the theater was almost magically silent. All that could be heard was Seth’s voice, practically at a whisper, and the crowd singing in turn. The only interruption was when someone screamed, “I love you Seth!” causing the audience to cheer for seconds straight, and forcing Seth to vamp. This song was definitely the emotional highlight of the evening. I saw many a tear and slow dance, and my heart stopped a little when Seth blew the crowd kisses as the song ended.
Directly after Seth’s solo, Scott came out so that the brothers could duet on the songs, “Bella Donna,” “Sanguine” and “Just a Closer Walk.” They whispered surreptitiously to each other, and then started playing in sync, still facing one another. Each took turns at melody and harmony, with Seth laughing when he messed up and Scott coaxing out solos from his banjo. It was like observing one of the brothers’ personal jam sessions, and it seemed as if they were no longer aware that the audience was there. It was touching that band could, and would, share this moment of brotherly enchantment with the audience.
The band returned with cellist Joe Kwon, opening with the upbeat song “Go To Sleep,” followed by “Gimmeakiss,” and the titular, “I and Love and You.” Seth took a turn at the piano for this song, and Scott, for the first time without an instrument, held three fingers up, one by one, at the lyrics, “Three words that became hard to say / I and Love and You.” The audience followed suit, to which Scott tantalizingly yelled, “We love coming here and we love coming back,” and later, “see you guys soon.”
They closed with “Kick Drum Heart,” which they performed on electric guitar and bass. The audience saw a glimpse of Seth’s ability to rock, and of all of the band’s songs, this one had the greatest disparity between the live and album version — not to knock the recorded track. But there is nothing like feeling the kick drum echo around the theater and through your chest after the lyrics, “My, my heart’s like a kick drum.”
Of course, the audience saw right through the band’s planned ending, but it played along, screaming for five minutes straight, until the brothers came back for an encore. They played four more songs, including “January Wedding” and “Talk On Indolence.” The latter was electrifyingly empowering, especially when they started to scream the lyrics, “Because we had to!” Seth, who started out with a tambourine and guitar, threw both backstage to a crew member so that he could concentrate on screaming. The images of a guitar flying across the stage in wild abandon, Scott standing on a drum to sing and Joe Kwon playing his cello high in the air (which, being a cello player myself, I know is no small feat), is the best I can do to capture the energy of the song that ended a two-and-a-half hour, phenomenal and magnetically charged night.