Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Avett Brothers make it count at “Austin City Limits” taping

Peter Blackstock
pblackstock@statesman.com

What a difference five years makes. The last time the Avett Brothers taped “Austin City Limits,” they’d just made the transition to the major-label ranks and were still in the early stages of navigating their passage between the underground and the big time. Monday night at ACL Live, it was clear that they’ve not only arrived, they’ve transcended.

Fronted from the start by siblings Scott and Seth Avett, the band has become bigger in a physical as well as a metaphorical sense. A quartet when they played the show in 2009, they’re now a seven-piece, and it makes a huge difference.

It’s not so much a matter of increased volume; sometimes their songs are quite loud, sometimes they’re very quiet. More noticeable is a significant step up in stage presence. While the brothers and longtime bassist Bob Crawford always have been lively performers, the back-row addition of drummer Mike Marsh and keyboardist Paul DeFigilia has freed them up to explore more theatrics in their presentation.

Even more significant is the undeniable chemistry between cellist Joe Kwon, who’s been on board since 2007, and much more recent addition Tania Elizabeth on fiddle. Enthusiastically playing off of each other at stage left with a yin-yang compatibility, they’ve helped make the Avetts a marvel to behold in concert, overflowing with enough energy to fill spaces far larger than ACL Live. (Thus their appearance on one of the two biggest stages at the Austin City Limits Music Festival last weekend and this weekend.)

The first half-hour of the 17-song set built to a mid-show peak with the ambitious and multilayered “Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise,” which reached a crescendo with Seth and Scott in frozen repose on a stage riser for a dramatic pause just before the song’s end. From there, they segued seamlessly into the immediately catchy “Kick Drum Heart,” its stuttering beats carried by boisterous audience handclaps that echoed from the jam-packed floor to the high balcony seats.

Smaller moments of wonder abounded as well, such as Crawford pulling out a violin for a twin-fiddle assault on “Satan Pulls the Strings,” the entire band lying prone on the stage to give Marsh a drum-solo spotlight during “Slight Figure of Speech,” and a rousing cover of the old George Jones hit “The Race Is On” to start a two-song encore.

For me, the most eye-opening moment was a quiet stretch near the end of “Down With the Shine,” when Kwon and Elizabeth’s cello and fiddle interwined for an almost classical passage of purely beautiful music. It felt like the Avetts could follow that lead toward an entire album of chamber-string sounds and songs, if they desired.

Near the end of the set, Seth Avett explained that playing “Austin City Limits” was an especially poignant experience for the brothers because “we grew up watching this show. To us, this is what music looks like on television.”

Set list:

Live and Die

Laundry Room

Rejects in the Attic

Distraction #74

Down With the Shine

Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise

Kick Drum Heart

Life

In the Garden

Satan Pulls the Strings

Another is Waiting

Vanity

Slight Figure of Speech

Morning Song

Encore:

The Race Is On

November Blue