Scott and Seth Avett and their band were five songs into their set before I realized there was a guy up the back playing pedal steel guitar.
Chalk up another victim of the famously awful acoustics at the Johnny Mercer Theatre.
So much of Thursday night’s show was buried in mud, you could say there were exactly two dynamics: Loud and quiet.
Which is too bad, because a selling point of the Avett Brothers’ music is the tightly-knitted vocal harmonies, along with the subtle shifts in rhythm and texture, and the muted but key support of Joe Kwon’s electric cello.
Oh, the siblings’ Everly-like harmonies were on display in full; on Avett chestnuts like “The Weight of Lies” and “Morning Song,” Seth’s bell-clear high tenor and Scott’s lower range flew and turned like birds in telepathic flight.
They opened with “Amazing Grace,” which was, admittedly, kind of cool.
“Pretty Girl From Annapolis” was delicate, with a sweet interlude from Seth on Hank Cochran’s classic “Can I Sleep In Your Arms Tonight?” giving it a hypnotic, romantic balance.
The Avett Brothers have come a long way since their acoustic-duo days in North Carolina; they’re a rock ‘n’ roll band now, with longtime musical partner Bob Crawford switching between his trusty standup acoustic and an electric Fender bass, and Mike Marsh on the drums.
All well and good – in art, the only constant is change – but when they blazed through “Go To Sleep” and “Slight Figure of Speech,” they came off like a better-than-average power-pop band playing catchy, uptempo songs. On acoustic guitar and banjo, not the most powerful of instruments.
It didn’t help that the Avetts, Crawford and Kwon – the frontline – tend to leap into the air, in unison, on the fast numbers. They were Loggins and Messina 2014, and do we really need that?
The strongest showcases for what these guys are all about came during each brother’s “solo” moment: Scott Avett’s heart-wrenching and funny “Murdered in the City,” and an untitled song, sung by Seth, the brothers only recently wrote and have yet to record. “Vanity” was beautifully rendered.
Also effective despite the Mercer mud were the moments that the brothers and Crawford, playing his acoustic bass, performed as a trio. It was clear that was the way they started, and they were at ease and in their element.
The audience – requisite vocal drunks included – sang loudly along with “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” “Backwards With Time” and the band’s honky-tonking cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time,” and went into spasms when Scott came down from the stage and sang “Pretty Girl From Michigan” while walking on chairs and giving high-fives.
It was during this song that I noticed the pedal steel player – his name is Paul Delfigia - had switched to organ. I didn’t hear that in the mix, either.
After the show, I sat down on the steps outside to take a breath before the long walk back to wherever the hell my car was parked.
A boozy, bearded guy came over and sat right next to me, cigarette in hand.
“Did you see the concert?” he asked. I replied that I had.
“Not the best shit I’ve seen, but not the worst either,” he offered.
I couldn’t say it any better myself.
The Avett Brothers are back onstage at the Johnny Mercer Theatre tonight (Friday, March 21). The show is sold out.