It took about three minutes Thursday night for the Avett Brothers to establish a markedly different tone for the latest edition of their North Carolina home-court New Year’s Eve shows. In contrast to the matching formalwear and staggered grand entrances of recent Dec. 31 arena shows, they all entered the Greensboro Coliseum stage in unison, and casually dressed.
Then they swung on into “The D Bag Rag,” a loopy instrumental that concluded with just about everyone onstage blowing a communal kazoo solo. The crowd roared.
It was a lighthearted opening to a 29-song, two-hour set. That’s miles more energetic than just about anybody this side of Bruce Springsteen, but relatively modest by the Avetts’ standards. Compared to last year’s pull-out-all-the-stops epic marathon at Raleigh’s PNC Arena (a recording of which just came out as the Avetts’ new concert album “Live, Vol. Four”), Thursday night felt more like a loose, informal house-concert hootenanny – albeit one with about 10,000 backup singers chiming in on every song.
Chime in they did, with the brothers frequently going silent at the microphones to let the audience handle the singing, including the entire first verse of “Live and Die.” The Avetts’ fan base remains one of the most rabidly loyal in popular music, and this definitely wasn’t the show for anyone who doesn’t enjoy communal sing-alongs.
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With no current studio album to promote (although one is on the way for 2016, Seth Avett promised), mostly greatest hits prevailed. As always, 2009’s landmark “I and Love and You” provided the heart of the set, from the title track to “Laundry Room” and the encore version of “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” – punctuated by manic howlers like “Talk on Indolence.” Scott Avett also played “Murder in the City” solo out on the catwalk, and the crowd was as close to hushed as it would get all night.
Joe Kwon was his usual dervish-like self, thrashing his cello with an abandon usually reserved for hardcore. And there were cameos from both opening acts, Screamin’ Jays and Asleep at the Wheel, for an all-hands-on-deck finale of the old doowop tune “Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight.”
The set also included a new song called “Divorce Separation Blues,” which Seth and Scott Avett performed with bassist Bob Crawford in an acoustic-trio format. Seth seemed to sing it from a raw place, with an edge of bitterness despite the smile on his face.
“I got the tough education, no celebration, bad communication, worst interpretation, love deprivation, pain allocation, soul deprivation, cold desolation, life complication, resuscitation, divorce separation Blues…”
As his brother Scott quipped afterward, “That was an expensive song to write.”
Reprising his role from last New Year’s Eve, Valient Thorr’s berobed frontman Herbie Abernathy appeared onstage as Father Time just before midnight struck. As the calendar turned over to 2016, copious amounts of confetti exploded, balloons fell and Abernathy stuck around to sing a couple of cool covers – the Irma Thomas/Rolling Stones Chestnut “Time Is On My Side,” and Tom Petty’s “Don’t Do Me Like That.”
They went back to the folksy-trio presentation after that for “Salvation Song,” the two Avetts and Crawford gathered around a single microphone on the catwalk. You had to strain to hear them over the barrage of popping balloons, but they bravely soldiered on.
“We came for salvation, we came for family
We came for all that’s good, that’s how we’ll walk away…”
It was a good thing their voices carried.