Driving up Staples Mill yesterday, I caught an unfamiliar time-chunk (I believe that’s the technical term for it) of NPR, and I heard something that didn’t fully hit me until I was halfway through last night’s Avett Brothers concert at the Charlottesville Pavilion. It came from an interview that cellist Clancy Newman did with Performance Today for their series about how musicians practice. Newman said sitting down to play his cello is so sacred that he never practices with scales or exercises, only pieces of music that carry “emotional meaning.” In that way, he can be sure that each of his performances will tap into his passion and his instrument’s emotive power. At first it seemed a little over the top… until I watched Joe Kwon. Kwon is the cellist for the Avetts, and he is not your average sit-and-stay cellist. He spent all of last night’s show upright and dancing, playing with his cello tucked under his chin as he accumulated broken strands at the end of his bow. It was a sight to behold, not just because of the difficulty involved, but because his eyes-closed, engulfed-in-the-music passion couldn’t be constrained by a chair, or a space, or the tensile strength of horsehair (Really? They still use actual horsehair for bows? That seems weird. I also feel, as a former A-HEM [straightens tie] middle school violinist, I should have known that without asking Wikipedia.) You could see the same quality in Scott Avett, whose deluge of enthusiasm is too much for a single instrument (he often pounds a kick drum as he strums his banjo) and in Seth Avett, who moved with every beat of every song, played his acoustic guitar like the strings would never snap (two did during the course of the evening), and absolutely screamed select song lyrics along with his brother. The two frontmen even did a short set around a single microphone, without any other amplification, as if the sound system itself could not conduct all of their musical energy. It was a phenomenal display, and it helped me understand what Clancy Newman meant in his interview. For Newman, it’s careful reverence. For the Avetts, it’s unbridled irreverence. But the Avett Brothers scream, play cello and pound on deconstructed drum sets with the same passion that’s so strong in Clancy Newman that he doesn’t even want to touch his instrument sometimes. That is such a beautiful thought, and it was a true gift to see it come to life before my eyes last night. One song the Avett Brothers played that I think embodies this thought particularly well is “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” from their latest album I and Love and You. Listen to the song below, and grab the album here.
The Avett Brothers — “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise“