New sounds from the Carolinas – New punk-grass music swept in with Avett Brothers at Sings Like Hell

Oct 22, 2007Reviews, Series 22


A strange wind was literally kicking up dust in Santa Barbara on Saturday night, raining down remnants of this summer’s epic Zaca Fire. Revelers at the monthly Sings Like Hell concert at Lobero Theatre couldn’t help but notice the extreme conditions, nursing intermission beverages and rubbing irritated eyes.

Meanwhile, inside the theater, dust of another sort was being kicked up, courtesy of the Santa Barbara debut of the Avett Brothers. In the long-standing Sings Like Hell annals, there hasn’t been a band this raw and rough-housing since that of the Gourds, a madcap band out of Austin, Texas.

At this point, the North Carolina-based punk-meets-bluegrass band — an acoustic four-piece based around brothers Seth and Scott — is sailing along nicely in the semi-underground cult status world. At the Lobero, the usual crop of more staid subscribers was ringed by a healthy showing of whooping fans and their shouting out of well-placed requests.

It’s not difficult to understand how the band could inspire such fierce devotion. It brings a crackling energy to live shows — a don’t-sweat-the-petty-stuff attitude in terms of instrumental precision. The songwriting dazzles and the vocals and harmonies are hot and taut. Add stand-up bass (Bob Crawford) and some cello (Joe Kown) into the mix, and you have a band brimming with electricity, even with no electric instruments in sight.

Reportedly, it all started when Seth Avett took up the banjo, after having exorcised his rock-punk angst in the brothers’ previous band, Nemo. Since 2000, the brothers have been exploring their new sound at the juncture of bluegrass, old-timey sounds and indie attitudes.

Somehow, the punk-grass hybrid works wonders, partly because both draw on brute, gritty energy. Of course, one difference is the crisp finger-picking detail work in bluegrass, versus the proudly sloppier “good enough is good enough” ethic of punk and its stylistic progeny.

Onstage, the brothers cut a modernite-hippie-hillbilly image, with their long locks, whiskers and ill-fitting slacks (covering lanky legs prone to dance spasms). Although drums are absent in the band, Seth Avett occasionally plays a bass drum (making that two drumheads in his arsenal, after the drumhead-based banjo) and Scott Avett sometimes triggered a high hat.

A lack of drums proper, doesn’t hinder their wily stage energy. Broken strings are apparently commonplace, as when bassist Mr. Crawford broke a string. When a bassist breaks a string, you know the band is raucous.

The band’s latest album is called “Emotionalism,” from which many of the set’s songs were taken, including show opener “Shame.” True to the title, the Avetts’ songbook is full of true-blue emotion.

And somehow, the band’s songs are also inventive and earthy. “Murder in the City” starts with what seems like dark humor, but yields to sweetness, a recurring pattern in the Avett songbook. In “Paranoia in B flat Major,” the song ends with dreamy falsetto parts — yet another surprise from a band that embraces creative twists. On “Distraction #74,” about a beach-bound highway drive back home, the brothers began playing the hocketing game, swapping lyric fragments and finishing each other’s phrases.

Opening the show, also from North Carolina, was the folky-bluesy Chuck Cannon. He’s one of those artists whose day job is songsmithing in Nashville, Tenn., but who has his own kind of fun in the alternate identity as a singer-songwriter. The son of two Pentecostal preachers, Mr. Cannon’s best songs tend to dwell on his love-hate relationship with religion.

During the encore, Santa Barbara-based drummer Ben Marguiles joined in on the cajon, leading an extended impromptu jam while Mr. Cannon switched and tuned guitars after a broken string perturbed his groove. Broken strings became a refrain on this night. Must have been the odd weather voodoo outside, filtering its way inside where the Carolinans were holding sway.