Seven minutes after leaving the spectacular show by Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain, and Edgar Mayer at the Lucas Theatre on the 7th night of the 2011 Savannah Music Festival, we were a few feet from the stage at The Avett Brothers sold-out show at Johnny Mercer Theatre. (Biking is definitely the most efficient way to get around downtown Savannah.)
The trio at the Lucas was amazing, as I describe here, so there was no way we could leave that show at intermission just to catch the Avetts.
As it turned out, we only caught the final 30 minutes of The Avett Brothers. Just as soon as we stopped our mad dash, I had a split-second letdown: the Lucas performance had been so incredible and nuanced and skilled that The Avett Brothers looked for a moment like a bunch of kids who had just discovered their adult voices.
Which turned out to be just fine — even great.
It took only seconds to adjust to the new scene. The crowd of 2500 was on their feet, The Avett Brothers were attacking their instruments with a fervor that fed the crowd, and lead singer Scott Avett’s voice was especially crisp and clear — really surprising to me given the notoriously fuzzy acoustics at the rather sterile Johnny Mercer Theatre. The crowd for those 30 minutes struck me as upbeat, celebratory, warm. The energy on stage was electric, youthful, masculine.
I have read all sorts of attempts to define the genre of The Avett Brothers, but I think it’s pretty simple: Pop. Maybe “banjo pop.” Maybe “pop-country” or “country-pop.” There are a couple of ballads getting lots of air play on country radio stations right now that are just one forced twang or insipid chip-on-the-shoulder lyric away from the The Avett Brothers’ more broadly appealing sound. It’s pop in my book — which is just fine.
We got there in time to hear the beautiful hit song “I and Love and You” from the 2009 album of the same name:
We also heard “Dream Appointed”; here’s a link to a cell phone video with fair sound that someone has posted from that very night:
And “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues.” The sound’s not so great in this live concert video, but it gives a good sense of the energy on stage and the engagement of the crowd:
We didn’t see enough of the show for me to write a proper review of it, but I loved it — and I’d go back to see The Avett Brothers in a second.
Many, probably most, of the audience would agree with those sentiments, but a couple media critics were not so kind. This review of the show by Jim Morekis at Connect Savannah makes all sorts of interesting points about the commercial and artistic choices that The Avett Brothers have made. Jim praises much of the show, but has little good to say about the audience:
While the age diversity of the crowd in attendance was quite impressive and speaks very well to the Savannah Music Festival’s continuing successful outreach, the core audience at the Avetts’ gig was pretty much the same boorish frat-boy crowd which has ruined so many shows at the Johnny Mercer Theatre and Civic Center Arena over the last few years through their chronic rudeness and inability to handle the alcohol that the City of Savannah is only too eager to sell them.
Jim’s review has prompted some interesting and emotional comments on the site, including from one reader who details just how few fraternities there are in the Savannah area.
Former Connect critic and now freelancer Jim Reed, who is covering the SMF for The South, posted a scathing review on his blog Wicked Messenger. He attacks both the performance and the audience (and even throws in a they-ought-to-be-listening-to-Dylan allusion):
As someone who is not intimately familiar with their material, all I could hear in my head was what was actually taking place in front of me, which was in all honesty the single most boring concert I can remember attending in many, many years. Although youâ€™d never know it by the reactions from the crowd. They were going buck wild â€”as though the Avettsâ€™ lyrics were â€œwritten by an Italian poet from the Thirteenth Century,â€ or as if theyâ€™d never seen such a dazzling display of showmanship before.
A half-dozen or so of my Facebook contacts posted similar comments online, which were greeted with agreement from any number of others. I lost count of the Avett bashing on Thursday.
I haven’t seen as many shows as a lot of other Savannahians, and I certainly haven’t seen as many shows at Johnny Mercer or the attached Civic Center arena, both of which I find somnolent spaces. Those venues bring me down the moment I walk in, so I have to really want to see an act before I’ll get tickets.
And musical tastes obviously vary, and we all have different feelings about the audiences with whom we share events.
For example, I’ve never been a fan of the jam band scene, which seems to me too monotonous artistically, and which attracts a strangely contradictory crowd. I just can’t quite get over the innate social and political conservatism of guys with tie-dye shirts wearing caps from their most recent fishing or golf tournaments. When the Georgia Legislature issues a proclamation honoring Widespread Panic, well, enough said.
So I don’t make any effort to attend jam band performances, and I don’t complain about those who do (except now . . .).
And I don’t set myself up for disappointment by going to shows I don’t expect to enjoy with people I don’t want to be with.
Maybe it’s just my age, but there seems to be a growing tendency among my Savannah contemporaries to complain about crowd behavior at club shows and at larger concerts. I still don’t quite know what to make of all this since I don’t seem to be bothered by the crowd even a tenth as much as others are (and when I am bothered, it’s a pretty good bet it’s someone closer to my age than to the younger people that attract so many complaints), so I’ll just make a series of observations:
-Perhaps some of the crowd noise complaints from the Johnny Mercer Theatre have to do with the acoustics of the room. Just wondering. Maybe the room itself amplifies crowd noise rather than dampening it? The sound has always seemed better to me in the balcony, btw. There are certainly a few hoots and hollers during “Dream Appointed” posted above from Wednesday’s show, but I certainly don’t and didn’t find those distracting. The Avett Brothers seemed to be getting just the reaction they wanted, at least to me.
-I’m not referring here to the reviews I’ve posted links to, but to the general vibe of the current culture of complaint regarding live shows: those who complain focus an awful lot on groups of people rather than on actual behavior. Are we all destined to become our parents, complaining about “kids these days”? Or destined to view with intolerance younger people who seek a sense of community in the unironic and emotional embrace of music that speaks to them, whatever it may be? Or destined to sit on the sidelines and resent the success of a sexy, ambitious young band like The Avett Brothers? I gave one of my tickets to The Avett Brothers to a young friend who had — by any measure — a tough upbringing in the semi-rural South. He was simply ecstatic after the show.
-As the Savannah Music Festival brings in more acts that appeal to younger audiences, there’s definitely a bit of tension regarding “sit-down” shows and “stand-up” shows. A microcosm of that debate can be found in the comments to my review of last week’s stellar show by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Encouraging dancing down front and even on stage has been part of Jones’ M.O. for years — she certainly was going to do that same type of show here no matter what. For anyone who knows The Avett Brothers at all, it was a no-brainer that Wednesday’s show would be a stand-up one. Maybe the SMF should include that disclaimer in their program — to encourage or to discourage potential ticket buyers, whichever the case may be.
I’ll likely return to some of these issues in future posts.
And if, like me, you can’t get enough of The Avett Brothers, have a listen:
Almost 16 minutes of the Avett Brothers live and acoustic in a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR (the sound seems a little tinnier than other Tiny Desk Concerts I’ve heard):
“Murder in the City”:
“Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise”: