The cover art for the new Avett Brothers album, due out in late September, is a portrait painted by band member Scott Avett. The piece is completely unlike any of the Avett Brothers' other album artwork, which has been dark but not quite so literal. It's also kind of a bad painting. With an irrefutable love for the Avett's music, I have no love for this painting. The woman's head (or is that Neil Young?) is fine, with Rembrandt-like crudity and chiuroscuro that would make Caravaggio proud. The skull adds an element of vanitas, an age-old symbolism evoking life's transience. However, what is going on with... her arm? It doesn't look at all like it belongs to her body, and the painting is rendered too black to make the parts properly relate to each other. Is she holding the skull? Couldn't the Avett Brothers have used a better work of art, something in the same vein from George de La Tour perhaps? Who knows why the Avetts chose this painting for their cover art, but I hope it isn't indicative of the music that will be included. Will the music be dark and obscure? Have the Avett Brothers lost touch with reality? Are they trying too hard to be serious?
Musically, the Avett Brothers have consistently proven that they are immensely talented. Emerging from the foothills of North Carolina with extraordinary energy and heart, they have created a mixture of American roots music, folk, blues, rock, punk and rhythm that goes beyond categorization. I have never seen a livelier performance by another band, nor heard more heartfelt lyrics. Their talent is evidenced by the crowds at their shows. When I first found out about them, I'd go see them play empty bars in small North Carolina towns where sometimes the guy at the door would let you in free if you were a girl. Despite the small attendance, the Avett's would always put on the show of their life. Guitar and banjo strings broke by the dozen, and harmonicas would go flying. At the end of the night I'd shake Seth and Scott's sweaty hands and they'd ask how I was. The music and performances were an infectious combination, and the more they played, the bigger the crowds became. Now the Avetts sell-out stadiums, tour with Dave Matthews, play for Leno and are interviewed by Vanity Fair. Rick Rubin is producing their upcoming album. Though still quite gracious, they wouldn't remember me, and on their nationwide tours they only stop to play in North Carolina once or twice a year.
"So do you stop liking a band once it becomes popular, because its not cool anymore?" a friend asked me recently. No, of course not. But I feel a little like a parent, proud of my kids who've succeeded beyond their own endeavors, and moving on with my own life. While I check in now and then to make sure they are well, I leave them to their own devices. So, paint whatever you want, Scott Avett, and put it on your album; I will tape it to my metaphorical refrigerator. Your music I will always love, not just because its good, but because I am also sentimentally attached to it. It is tied up inextricably with memories of love, heartbreak, long Southern summer nights, New Years Eve parties, road-trips, and bits of my life that I can't even explain.
But it had been a long time since I'd seen an Avett Brothers show, so I decided to go see them a few weeks ago, when they were in NYC. They played two nights at the Fillmore at Irving Plaza, a lovely venue with intimacy that belied its size. The set list was a mixture of old and new, which Scott, Seth and Bobby Crawford performed with as much zeal as they ever have. Seth played a large role with solos, and with a fourth man, Joe Kwon, on the string bass, Bob worked it on the guitar. It was different, and it was the same. And it was really really good. The Avett Brothers put more energy and heart into one show than many other bands put into their whole careers. The music is clever, earthy, real and yet danceable and singable. The songs are about life's questions, about love, and about lessons learned. Gorgeous melodies combine with foot-stomping beats, and pretty soon everyone is either dancing or crying. If they weren't as spontaneous as in years past (and who would have known--they gave incredible energy as always), it was because they were concentrating on creating a perfect sound, a perfect song each time. If they didn't play all of my favorite songs, it was only because there are too many great ones to choose from. And if they have bad cover album art, it is apparently completely unconnected to their music, because the Avett Brothers are only getting better.
I like what Seth Avett said in a recent interview in American Songwriter: "We've seen a lot of temporary, disposable, plastic music in the mainstream. When the public becomes over saturated with that, its very pleasing to the ear to hear something more simple and human, and with less libido, like somone's just talking to you." Well, these guys can talk to me any time. And the only paintings I'm concerned about are the ones they paint with their songs.