“There’s hope for sure, can y’all hear me?” Scott Avett chants the lyrics to “High Steppin’” into an audience of dimly-lit parked cars, followed by honks and horns of applause. If the young Avett brothers were told that one day they’d perform a sold-out, drive-in, socially-distanced concert at the same racetrack they ventured around on adolescent Saturdays with their father—they likely wouldn’t have believed that story. Nonetheless, this was the very scene on Saturday as indie-folk ensemble The Avett Brothers took to the stage at the 4k Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The band, made up of Scott and Seth Avett, cellist Joe Kwon and upright bassist Bob Crawford, make their classy arrival known by stepping out of a 1965 Ford Galaxie after executing a loop around the racetrack. The group makes sure to give their drive-in and virtual audience a worthy experience, with an extensive setlist including 26 songs. They select tracks from Country Was, their alt-country 2002 record, as well as numbers off a brand new album The Third Gleam, which dropped on Friday.
Scott and Seth are a harmonious duo. While Scott’s voice is homegrown and husky, Seth’s vocal timbre is airy and light. The former rocks the banjo for this show, showcasing his talent for the folk instrument during “Living of Love,” as Seth belts the bridge lyrics and asks the audience to “Help us…say love, say for me love.”
A sea shanty of sorts, “Go to Sleep” is a worriless, joyous track and an absolute standout from the band’s 2007 breakthrough record, Emotionalism; it is the only song on the album featuring the harmonica, in addition to a bouncy, recurring strings riff that sticks in the brain on repeat. The atmosphere swells with energy for “Talk on Indolence,” a track unlike anything The Avett Brothers have released, as Scott dives right into the first rap verse, fast and breathless. The tempo slows toward the second verse, then speeds up once again, pulling the audience into the soul of the song.
If the indie-folk subgenre had a gateway drug, it would be “Will You Return?” It’s optimistic and easy, the kind of whimsical melody that barely masks its heart-wrenching lyrics. “I’m stuttering again,” Scott sings in a quivering tone, acting out the song’s story onstage. He performs similarly for “Shame,” holding out his palms in plea as he sings about a guilty conscience over hurting an ex-lover. The track begins as an apology tune, slowly morphing into a pitiable appeal for the removal of his guilt. The muffled banjo strumming behind the final lyrics, “Filled with guilt and overwhelming shame,” conveys the singer’s emotional complexity.
A fitting track for the times is “Locked Up,” providing a little comic relief with lyrics such as, “I’m a booty shaker/ Tired of twerking.” Seth takes complete solo presence onstage for “In The Curve,” a track that seems to have been pulled directly from the bluegrass music of the eighties. Seth introduces “We Americans” as “a song about all of us.” The title and first verse dress the track as a nationalist tune at first, but all expectations shift as it goes on to shed light on “the Civil War,” “stolen land” and “the arrogance of manifest destiny,” to name a few of the disgraces southern-born music often ignores.
Closing the concert is “No Hard Feelings,” an undisguised song about dying. Seth takes lead vocals for the final track, navigating a song that travels closer and closer to reconciliation. The art of forgiveness is no easy feat, but The Avett Brothers have never been the kind to take on easy subjects. The finale is a wide-angle view of the scene from the sky: a massive field decorated by beaming headlights, filled with the sound of honking car horns, cheers and the awaited return of the audience to live music.
Photo Credit: Ekaterina Gorbacheva