As midnight drew near at the Avett Brothers’ annual New Year’s Eve show, Scott Avett had a question for the PNC Arena crowd: “Who’s ready to see 2017 go?”
Everyone roared in response, and he said, “I got a good feeling about 2018.” And while that’s no guarantee, of course, the Avetts did get this year off to an excellent if somewhat unexpected start.
The arc of a typical Avett Brothers show goes something like whisper to a scream, opening at a relatively stately pace and building up to a cathartic release. Sunday night’s show went pretty much the opposite way, opening at full-blare fever pitch and then downshifting into extended quiet interludes toward the end.
New Year’s Eve with the Avett Brothers has become a North Carolina tradition, and this was Raleigh’s first in the rotation since 2014 turned into 2015. It was a draining two-and-a-half-hour show by the headliners, plus a couple of very fine opening acts.
New York’s Felice Brothers went first with a loose-limbed half-hour along the lines of Bob Dylan’s old Rolling Thunder Revue. Next up, Chapel Hill’s Mandolin Orange played a lovely, trance-inducing 45-minute set in which their understated vibe translated well to a large arena setting.
“I always thought the first time I played PNC Arena, I’d be wearing hockey skates,” quipped Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin.
Then the Avetts came roaring out of the gate with “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” in a powerful wall-of-sound arrangement far removed from the spare original that appeared on 2009’s “I and Love and You” album. Even stately songs like “Laundry Room” and “True Sadness” felt hopped-up Sunday night, with Seth Avett in full-on guitar-hero mode. During “Kickdrum Heart,” he went halfway down the arena floor and back, trailing a very long power cord and soloing all the way.
About a half-hour into the set, the group’s original trio of Scott and Seth Avett and bassist Rob Crawford left the stage and reappeared on a small auxiliary pop-up stage out in the lobby. Throngs of people rushed out from the seating area to crowd around the stage, screaming along so loudly that “Shame” and “Distraction #74” were barely audible. It felt like a trip back to the Avetts’ long-ago days in nightclubs.
As is typical for an Avetts New Year’s Eve show, it was a family affair. Their sister Bonnie played keyboards throughout, and patriarch Jim Avett came out for a one-song cameo singing the old gospel number “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” As Jim left the stage, Scott played a solo rendition of “Murder in the City,” a rumination about fatherly love.
A few minutes before midnight, “Father Time” (played by Valient Thorr’s Herbie Abernathy) put in his obligatory appearance to see in 2018, entering the stage in a spacesuit to the strains of the “2001” movie theme. Then it was time for the countdown to midnight, with masses of balloons and confetti raining down. Abernathy sang a dead-on version of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” as the balloons flew, with Seth shredding on electric guitar. Cellist Joe Kwon, meanwhile, put down his instrument to hold up an oversized red balloon bigger than he was.
After that peak, most of the final 20 minutes felt like everyone, band as well as audience, catching their breath. “Through My Prayers” was offered up “for some people that lost someone,” Seth said. And after a zippy “Slight Figure of Speech” with a drum solo, the encore closed down with the ballad “No Hard Feelings.” It was lovely.
“We should get together again next year,” Seth announced during the encore, prompting another roar of affirmation from the crowd. “We’ll hold you to that.”