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.
Bob Crawford takes a modest posture on the widely held identification between the Avett Brothers and North Carolina music.
“I like a lot of the music in the twenties — the Piedmont old-time music,” he said during a recent interview. “You had a lot in Surry County, you had a lot in the Chapel Hill and Alamance County area. Charlie Poole is someone I really love. When I think of North Carolina music, I think of Doc Watson, who was a generation removed from that. I think Doc is synonymous with North Carolina music. We’re a generation or two removed from Doc. In some ways, an ethnomusicologist could tie us to North Carolina stylistically.”
The Avett Brothers’ impact on popular music is no less significant. Nowhere is their influence more apparent than in the music of Mumford & Sons, a British band credited with leading the recent folk revival. Marshall Winston, the group’s banjoist, told City Pages in Minneapolis that the band was listening to the Avett Brothers’ Four Thieves Gone album three or four times a week when they were recording their 2009 breakout record Sigh No More.
Here in North Carolina, the Avetts’ influence can be heard in Holy Ghost Tent Revival and the New Familiars, who emerged around 2006. Both bands matched acoustic instrumentation with a high-intensity stage presence, with Holy Ghost in particular reaching back to the 1920s to ragtime and other traditions, in an echo of the Avetts’ approach. The Carolina Chocolate Drops also explored early 20th Century Piedmont string-band music, arriving on the scene in the Avetts’ wake, but went deeper into the tradition.
Richard Richards, who performs with the Greensboro band Twain’s Jackrabbit, hears the Avett Brothers’ influence far beyond the folk-rock scene.
“I hear this rhythmic drive that I heard the first two times I heard them,” he said. “I heard it either in the bass drum or the percussive drive of the banjo. It’s this bom bom bom bom. I’ve heard it in so much music since then. When I was listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Cecelia’ you could hear it there. I hear it in the Lumineers, in Fun, in Phillip Phillips, the ‘American Idol’ star. If you listen for it, you can hear it. I didn’t hear it as much until [the Avett Brothers] were on the national stage.”
Right around the time the Avett Brothers were transitioning from the North Carolina-based indie label Ramseur to Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, Pete Schroth received an invitation to join the crew.
Schroth had sold the Green Bean and joined some partners to open the Flying Anvil, a medium-sized music venue modeled after the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. The Avett Brothers played with Mad Tea Party and Beaconwood on the second night of the venue’s grand opening, May 11, 2006. The venue would close before the year was out, an experienced that Schroth describes as being “like watching a dream collapse.” He and his wife, Anne, moved out to the country with their two boys, and Pete took odd jobs, including working for a veterinarian. Anne continued to make backdrops for the band through her fabric workshop Red Canary, and Pete booked them whenever they played in Greensboro. At one point, he told the band’s manager he would “rather be on your side of the business.”
“Scott Avett called Anne and said, ‘We want to offer your husband a job. Is it all right with you?’” Pete recounted. “Anne said, ‘Hell yeah, give him a job!’ They’re a family organization. Everybody who works for them is a friend, or a friend of a friend.”
The band gave Pete some time to talk the proposal over with Anne.
“I thought: If I do this, there’s no guarantee with this band,” Schroth said. “The answer we came up with was, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to give it a go.’ I believe in these guys, so why wouldn’t I venture into the unknown with them? Now, they’re some of my best friends.”
Schroth’s job was to run lights.
“Some of the first shows I did with them were opening for the Dave Matthews Band in front of big crowds,” Schroth recalled. “I was literally having Dave Matthews’ lighting guy explain to me how to operate this rig. At first every night I thought I was going to throw up. I was trying to learn something new every day.”
Luckily, through trial and error, Schroth improved at his craft, and by the time the band was headlining large shows he had gotten into his element. Once he got up to speed on the rudiments of lighting he was able to incorporate design into the lighting and stage set.
The band is famously disciplined.
“I think they respect the audience to where the audience deserves 100 percent,” Schroth said. “You can’t give 100 percent if you’re out there partying. They go full on with everything they do.”
Although the crew sometimes lets loose on nights when they don’t have a show the next day — what they call “roadie Friday — Schroth said the crew is similarly focused.
“I would not want to do the job hungover,” he said. “It’s very physically demanding, with long hours.”
Being on the road for weeks at a time is not always easy, especially when members of the band and crew have challenges at home. Most notably for the Avett Brothers organization, Crawford got a call from his wife while the band was on tour in 2011 reporting that their 1-year-old daughter had experienced a seizure. Her parents initially didn’t know whether she would live.
She requires ongoing treatment, but Crawford said earlier this month: “We go one day at a time. She had a brain tumor. I would say she’s currently doing pretty well.”
While Crawford described his job as a “privilege” and an “honor,” he acknowledged that it can be hard to make sure that everyone else is having a good time while his family is struggling.
“You kind of look at it like it’s your job to be out there; it’s hard to join the celebration,” he said. “It’s kind of evolved over the past few years. At first I had trouble accepting it and celebrating when I knew at home we were going through a hard time. We received a lot of encouragement from the fans. Some people reached out with cards saying they’ve experienced similar things. So you know there are other people going through a hard time and you represent them.”
Band and crew have experienced adversity together, both through the support the other members have shown their bandmate and other challenges that Crawford and Schroth declined to specify.
“I think it has kind of clustered around when I went through what I went through,” Crawford said. “We entered a two-year period of trials and tragedy that probably aged us a little bit. Not in the sense of slowing us down in approaching our jobs with high intensity and ardor; it slowed us down in age and brought us perspective. It hopefully brought us a little wisdom.”
Nowhere in the Avett Brothers’ new music is the capacity to absorb sorrow — and to forge ahead despite it — more evident than in a song that surfaced in the band’s live performances this past summer called “True Sadness.”
The chorus, with Seth on lead vocals, drives home the catharsis: “I hate to say it, but the way it seems is that no one is fine/ Take the time to peel a few layers and you will find… true sadness.”
A verse in the middle of the song, sung almost a capella, contains the kind of vignette for which the Avetts are renowned. It transports the song beyond self-pity into empathy: “Angela became a target as soon as her beauty was seen/ By young men who tried to reduce her down to a scene on an X-rated screen/ Is she not more than the curve of her hips?/ Is she not more than the shine on her lips?/ Does she not dream to sing and to live and to dance down her own path/ Without being torn apart? Does she not have a heart?”
Fans have taken note of the band’s growth.
“They’ve totally evolved,” the Rev. Grier Booker Richards said. “My memory of that Green Bean show was that there was some immaturity. It was playful and fun. The spiritual undertones are more articulated now. As songwriters and performers there’s a deeper experience that they have to draw from.”
Fans will have to wait a while yet for the release of the next studio album, with recorded versions of “True Sadness” and other new songs.
“If the rumor for us is spring, I’m going to tell you summer or fall,” Crawford said. “Things never go the way you plan for them to go. It will be sometime in 2016. It’s well on its way. We’re in the final stages of mixing and mastering. All the music’s down on the computer.”
In the meantime, the New Year’s Eve show in Greensboro is the thing.
The band and crew put more planning into the New Year’s Eve show than any other night of the year, Schroth said.
“I’m taking a leap this year,” he said. “This New Year’s show I’ve designed a whole new rig. I know what I want it to look like, but I don’t know exactly how it’s going to come out. It is the most stressful night of my life, but it’s also the most satisfying.”
Schroth declined to say what the design theme will be this year, preferring to keep it a surprise.
“It’s going to be interesting to see if it works,” he said.
In 2012, the band dressed in all white.
“I draped all the risers with white,” Schroth recounted, “so whatever color I used in the lights, that’s the color that you see on everything — like these canvasses running around.”
New Year’s Eve is always a homecoming for the band. The brothers live outside of Charlotte, while Crawford and Kwon live in the Triangle.
“It’s where they’re from, so they’re celebrating with friends and family,” Schroth said. “Starting from here, a lot of the fans first saw them at places like the Green Bean and have grown with them. We’re not the same people either; everybody progresses together.”
Back home in Greensboro, Schroth has been thinking about the family atmosphere around the Avett Brothers operation.
“Combining that with being in North Carolina, it’s a good place to be,” he said.
He experienced an epiphany when the terrorist attacks took place in Paris in November, and gunmen opened fire inside a crowded concert hall where the American band Eagles of Death Metal was playing. When the news broke, the Avett Brothers were preparing to go onstage in Fargo, ND.
“Days later, it hit me: I can’t ever leave these guys,” Schroth said. “After I saw what that band went through, I realized I love these guys. I don’t think I can ever leave these guys, even if I wanted to.
“It was really heavy to have that realization. Unless they quit, I’m not quitting. I told Anne that. She said, ‘I get it.’”