Some dates become indelibly connected with a major historical moment, marking a shift from before to after.
Sept. 11, 2001 instantly brings to mind the World Trade Center. In Greensboro, Feb. 1, 1960 is just as surely associated with the eruption of the civil rights movement as Nov. 3, 1979 summons a tragic collision of social forces. Nov. 4, 2008 marks the election of Barack Obama.
While not by any stretch in the same order of magnitude as those events, the Avett Brothers’ concert at the Green Bean in downtown Greensboro represents a seismic cultural shift of a different sort.
The night is vividly seared in the memory of Richard Richards, a local musician who serves as director of music at Oak Ridge Presbyterian Church.
When asked recently to reminisce about the concert, he blurted out: “Dec. 11, 2004.”
The Avett Brothers made an instant impression — musically, aesthetically and physically. The bearded Scott Avett, his younger brother Seth with long hair, joined double-bassist Bob Crawford, whose well-groomed appearance pegged him as the straight man against the brothers’ scruffiness. Then, as now, the band members’ dress signaled a kind of discipline that belied their explosive stage presence. Their ardor and sincerity instantly made instant fans of first-time listeners — among them Richard Richards.
“I saw a uniformed band: guys with white shirts — these Beatlesque white shirts with denim,” he recalled. “And jackets probably. There was banjo and acoustic guitars.”
As a synesthete — someone who experiences music visually — the concert pushed him to the brink of sensory overload.
“I remember the music being as if two trains on the same track were going toward each other,” he recalled. “One was straight-up bluegrass, the other was punk, and it exploded into this beautiful fusion.”
The Rev. Grier Booker Richards, a Presbyterian chaplain for campus and young adult ministry in Greensboro and Richard’s wife, remembered the show as being loud and crowded.
“I definitely could tell there was a special vibe and energy, but if I had seen them on the street I would have no idea who they were,” she said.
“We came for fun,” she added, “and that’s what we got.”
It’s not hyperbole to say the Avett Brothers show at the Green Bean changed Pete Schroth’s life. A native of Atlanta, Schroth came to Greensboro in 1996 to study sculpture at UNCG. When he and his wife, Anne, opened the Green Bean in 2002, the coffeehouse at 341 S. Elm St. represented a turning point in what was then a moribund downtown, predating Natty Greene’s brewpub by at least one year.
Schroth had tried live shows in the coffeehouse before, with mixed results.
“I would have a regular tell me: ‘You gotta book this band — they’re incredible,’” Schroth recalled. “Then I’d book them, and the crowd would be that guy and four of his friends.”
He was understandably skeptical when two of his customers suggested that he book the Avett Brothers, but his doubts quickly dissipated when he listened to their music. He bought business-card software to make tickets, and quickly sold out the 99-capacity venue.
“I ask a lot of people about that show,” Schroth said. “I always ask them if they took any photos. I actually know a couple photographers who were there. But I’ve yet to meet anybody who took photos of that show. I was behind the counter working — selling PBRs. I heard the show, but I didn’t get to see it. My experience was different.”
The December 2014 Green Bean show was likely the last time the Avett Brothers performed in a small room, at least in North Carolina, although they continued to play smaller stages on the festival circuit, including Shakori Hills in Chatham County the following spring.
Their energy and relative youth — both brothers, who grew up outside of Charlotte in Concord, were still in their twenties at the time — might have given the impression of overnight success, but in fact they had put in at least three years of solid roadwork, with an output of three full-length studio albums.
The punk sound that Richard Richards identified in the December 2004 show was well placed — the brothers had played in a loud, aggressive band with metal and grunge leanings called Nemo in the late 1990s. Inspired in part by the North Carolina roots tradition of Doc Watson, they began playing some acoustic music as a side project. They auditioned Bob Crawford in a parking lot, jamming on the folk traditional “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.” They drafted him as the third member just as the group was getting its recording career underway.
By the time the Avett Brothers’ released their third album, Mignonette, in the summer of 2004, they had established a sound that effectively fused the high and lonesome traditionalism of Bill Monroe with the tight harmonies of the early Beatles and the frenetic, rhythmic drive of the Ramones. From that point, the group gradually but inexorably grew into a national stature that few other North Carolina acts have achieved in the past two decades.
Their widely acclaimed 2007 album Emotionalism was the first to feature cellist Joe Kwon, who would go on to become an official member of the band. Emotionalism caught the attention of Rick Rubin, a legendary producer who has worked with artists ranging from Glenn Danzig to Johnny Cash. The relationship has yielded three consistently excellent albums on Rubin’s American Recordings label: I and Love and You, The Carpenter and Magpie and the Dandelion, with a fourth in progress. In the meantime, the band earned the honor of backing Bob Dylan on “Maggie’s Farm,” along with Mumford & Sons, when Dylan received the Grammys Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.
The band’s rise can be charted through successive venues in Greensboro, going back to the Green Bean in 2004, and then War Memorial Auditorium in 2008 — a show also booked by Pete Schroth — culminating with the Greensboro Coliseum in 2012.
The Avett Brothers return to the coliseum on this New Year’s Eve as part of a homecoming tradition of celebrating the year’s end. The shows have rotated through arenas every year since ringing out 2011 in Greenville, SC, with turns in Charlotte and Raleigh in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The Avett Brothers’ New Year’s Eve tradition has been recently memorialized with the Dec. 18 release of a new album, Live, Vol. 4, drawn from last year’s show in Raleigh. Two new songs included on the set — “Satan Pulls the Strings” and “Rejects in the Attic” — give a sneak preview of the material the band has recorded with Rubin for the next studio album slated for release next year.