Fans who come to hear the Avett Brothers this summer expecting the kind of stripped-down, acoustic performances that have long been the folk-rock group's trademark are in for a surprise.
The core trio of brothers Scott and Seth Avett and bassist Bob Crawford now have plenty of company onstage, with drummer Mike Marsh, keyboardist Paul Defiglia, cellist Joe Kwon and fiddle player Tania Elizabeth all along for the ride. In the band's view, 2014 will be the year they take their live shows to a new level.
"What we found, when we hit the stage a few nights in a row, was that we are sitting on top of a powder keg in terms of our sound," crows Crawford. "We can take these songs that were originally recorded with three instruments and work them to seven, really expand them, create a lot of depth, add a lot of new harmonies. Not to beat a dead horse, but 2014 is going to be full of those kinds of moments of discovery."
During the aforementioned three-night stand in St. Louis, the group drew upon some 70 songs to create an almost entirely new set each night.
"I think we're beginning to realize a potential I'd put in the vein of the Grateful Dead," says Crawford of the band, which has released three live albums already. "You've got this mass of material that you're sitting on top of, and it's only right to kind of go through it and do as much of it as you can."
It's been more than a decade since the North Carolina band released its first full-length studio album, during which time they've become favorites within the alt-country/Americana scene. But while the strong songwriting remains intact, the rough-hewn, largely acoustic sound changed dramatically after the group was signed to uber-producer Rick Rubin's American Recordings label and partnered with him for 2009's I and Love and You. Since then, the Avett Brothers have continued to expand their musical vocabulary to the point where they can no longer be placed in specific musical categories.
The group continued down a similar path with 2012's The Carpenter and its most recent release, Magpie and the Dandelion — both of which were also produced by Rubin (whose eclectic résumé includes albums by the Beastie Boys, Slayer and Johnny Cash). Magpie's "Vanity," for instance, starts out on an elegant note before exploding into an epic rocker. Even songs that are largely stripped back, such as "Never Been Alive" and "Bring Your Love to Me," are supplemented with drums and other judiciously applied instrumentation.
The songs on Magpie actually come from the same recording session that produced "The Carpenter." The group had amassed a backlog of songs by then and recorded some 30 songs during the session.
"We had a bunch of songs we were considering for recording," explains Crawford. 'So we just said 'Why don't we just record them all?'"
It wasn't until last summer that the group, at Rubin's suggestion, began entertaining the notion that its next album was essentially already recorded.
The partnership with Rubin has been a big change for a band whose earlier albums were self-produced.
"It was more about energy than it was about finesse," says Crawford of the band's original approach. "And I think Rick introduced us to finesse."