Take a barbershop quartet minus one, add some scruffy facial hair, a jug of whisky, a hidden Black Sabbath tattoo, and three-part harmony that's occasionally interrupted by hysterical utterances, and you've only begun to pin down the Avett Brothers.
The banjo-strumming North Carolina trio, known for ecstatic crooning ballads and tent-revival-style performances, has found its niche in the ever-growing field of former hard rockers embracing the old-timey string band medium. With a growing national following, brothers Seth and Scott Avett, along with bassist Bob Crawford, are a far cry from anything definable. Even within a single song, they can skip between impersonating '60s folkies to '80s lounge singers, with a little '50s Buddy Holly diner rock laid down in between. Sung with consistently layered harmony, the lyrics are often the emotional exclamations of sweet pop. And while such compositions run the risk of blatant cliché, the brothers do it in a way that's just absurd, eclectic, and entertaining enough to sound convincingly authentic.
"We aren't set up to hold back," said younger brother Seth Avett, explaining the group's high-octane, hootenanny performance style that's helped win over crowds of twentysomethings who normally wouldn't be caught dead listening to '50s love songs. Indeed, the group's 27-year-old guitarist was speaking from the back of a rented tour bus as it rolled westward through Arkansas en route to Arizona. It's their first tour in a full-size bus instead of the unglamorous van mode of travel they've grown so accustomed to in their relentless schedule of 200-plus shows a year. They'll land in San Francisco this weekend for two shows at Slim's.
"It's the most comfortable vehicle we've been in for sure," he said, pausing momentarily to smear peanut butter on bread for his dinner. "It's not like, hey we've made it as rock stars, but it's a good thing, a good step for us."
Legroom aside, the bus is one sign that the seven-year-old band's influence is growing. Emotionalism, their sixth release, which came out last year, was greeted with a fair amount of acclaim and boosted the group's national recognition, even landing them a ten-minute interview on NPR.
The band's signature country roots-based acoustic guitar, banjo, bass, and kick-drum arrangement as well as crisp harmonies are about the only consistent elements in the album's fourteen tracks. A handful of songs include near-saccharine outpourings, strikingly reminiscent of early Beatles, as in the ballad "Will You Return." Meanwhile, "Paranoia in B-Flat Major" resembles a show tune, and "Pretty Girl from San Diego" is notable for its samba, calypso melodies, and Scott's banjo riffs that sound remarkably like a steel drum.
The album's title, Seth explained, is the band's stand against music that's too consumed with its own coolness factor, shrouding itself from revealing any real emotion.
"We write songs that are depictions of what we're feeling and exposes our vulnerability," he said. "There's too much in music that puts a lot of libido up front and doesn't back it up with much emotion. This is our way of saying we want to be romantic."
Emotionalism is notably softer than some of the group's earlier more pulsing anthems. The volume differential is symbolic of the Avett Brothers' broad musical wanderings that they say have brought them full circle. While still in their grunge-influenced hard-rock group Nemo, which, in Seth's words, "imploded" in 2000, the brothers started messing around with string-band instruments on the side. Products of the South, they'd grown up with country music wafting through the windows, and done whatever they could to escape its twangy grasp.
"We fought against who we were as much as we could for as long as we could," Seth admitted. "Country music is a part of who we are. We thought that wasn't the case."
Seth freely admits that no one in his group was ever really cut out to be a good bluegrass or old-time musician. The instruments, he says, are used more as songwriting devices to embrace roots-based music. Which isn't to say that electric instruments and the pumped-up amps don't still sometimes find their way onstage during performances.
There's a silly playfulness in the music, and that lack of self-restraint is where much of the band's charm stems from. "It may be a mystery," Seth said about why they've caught on. "We're trying to write songs as honest as we can. Seeing people relate is a beautiful thing. A lot of shows come across in a celebratory manner — a big, fun, exciting back and forth."