Wednesday evening, as concert-goers filed into PNC Arena for the Avett Brothers’ New Year’s Eve blowout, the background music was a selection of Western-movie soundtrack themes. The music that primed the band’s entrance was Elmer Bernstein’s iconic theme to “The Magnificent Seven,” naturally – you know, the “Marlboro Man” song from the old commercials.
The show was magnificent, too. A decade and a half after starting out in Concord as a punked-up folk trio, the Avetts are now a seven-piece band. It’s a lineup with the size and versatility to translate the grandest of Scott and Seth Avetts’ stately visions and ambitions.
They showed this lineup’s range with a new, unreleased song called “Satan Pulls the Strings,” a cross between walloping martial stomp-along and fiddle-tune hoe-down. That kicked off a three-hour-plus marathon in which the Avetts played close to three dozen songs, old and new.
Onstage, vestiges of their scruffy origins remained, notably Scott’s front-of-stage kick drum. You’d never call them slick – “All this tuning is just for show,” Seth quipped at one point – but the Avetts’ rise from clubs to arenas has smoothed off a lot of the rough edges.
Even if they don’t get quite as wild-eyed as the old days, they’ve gained an enhanced sense of pacing and dynamics. Where Avett Brothers shows used to go at a breakneck fever pitch, the peaks now serve as punctuation marks.
Songs from 2009’s landmark “I and Love and You” were high points, including the statement of purpose “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” and “Laundry Room.” On “Heart Like a Kickdrum, Seth sat on the edge of the stage and played a blistering guitar solo that concluded with his brother giving him a shoulder massage.
The Avetts have played big New Year’s Eve shows in their home state for more than a decade, and surprises are part of each year’s program.
Guest Ramin Karimloo, a Tony-nominated singer known for his West End London star turn in “The Phantom of the Opera,” added beautiful harmonies to “Murder in the City” and sang lead on the “Les Miserables” show-stopper, “Bring Him Home.”
The night’s coolest guest was Herbie Abernathy, frontman of metal gods Valient Thorr. He came out as a robed Father Time to preside over the countdown to 2015, with confetti and balloons raining down as the band played “Auld Lang Syne.” Then Abernathy took the lead on a sharp cover of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.”