If selling hundreds of thousands of records between eight studio albums, opening for the Rolling Stones in July 2015 and being inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in October 2016 doesn’t solidify The Avett Brothers status as NC’s favorite sons, frankly, we don’t know what will.
They’re frequent players of Colorado’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and attend national music festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella. Currently, they’re on tour with stops scheduled for Madison Square Garden with Brandi Carlile and three nights at the Chicago Theater later on this month—two of which are already sold out. Beforehand, they will make a pit stop in Wilmington to play the 69th annual NC Azalea Festival on April 7.
Their appearance at the Belk Main Stage isn’t without precedent. In fact, The Avett Brothers have played Wilmington numerous times before, including at the now-defunct Soapbox during the upstart of their career. Their first stint there in 2005 was an unforgettable experience for bassist Bob Crawford, who was available for an interview with encore in February.
“We’ve played some summer festivals out in the Midwest, but the Soapbox is the hottest show I have ever played,” Crawford remembers. “You could have cooked a turkey in the room; it was disgusting.”
It probably didn’t help he was wearing a wool suit during the show, which became less problematic for their second Soapbox run on its parking deck in 2007 for an outdoor festival. Yet, as the success of the Avetts has grown, they’ve yet to overlook the Port City. They played Azalea Festival in 2011 and 2013, too. The draw for their return is surprisingly simple. “Someone from the Azalea Festival asked us to play,” Crawford explains. “It’s a great event and we’re thrilled to be offered it.”
Actually, their history with the Port City dates back to 2002 during an ice storm. They played downtown at what was once Marz Nightclub (first located where Ziggy’s is before it moved to what’s now Buzz’s Roost). The Avett Brothers returned in 2003 to play the Lighthouse Wine and Beer Festival. During these self-described “wild days,” they also were regulars at The Shanakee before it became The Copper Penny. When asked about their romps on Front Street, Crawford keeps mum. “If there are any good stories, I don’t remember them,” he quips.
Crawford’s journey with the Avetts started in 2001. They reached out to him after hearing him play around town and decided on the perfect audition spot: a North Charlotte record-store parking lot. Ironically, Crawford just began playing upright bass three months prior. He had been the bassist in previous bands, like Blue Green Gauge and The Memphis Quick 50, and begun jamming with upright bassists while studying jazz at Winthrop University. When he looks back at that parking-lot audition, he’s still amazed by how far they’ve come. “We would have been total idiots if we thought we’d be here now,” Crawford admits.
Along with manning bass, fiddle, microphone and on rare occasions, the trumpet, Crawford has been a tie-breaker when it comes to musical disputes among the group. “Lyrically, it’s more particular to the person who wrote the song,” he explains. If Seth and Scott can’t hash out a particular lyric or phrase, Crawford becomes the deciding vote. “When you’ve got a board of three, two carries the day,” he declares.
Crawford has been credited for pushing the band to tour outside of their NC comfort zone during the early days. He convinced the brothers their musical stardom would not present itself willingly—regardless of how many Grammy acceptance speeches they drafted. In 2007 Crawford brought cellist Joe Kwon onto the band’s roster, then pianist and bassist Paul Defiglia came along for the ride, and new drummer Mike Marsh (formerly of Dashboard Confessional) came aboard full time in 2012. Tania Elizabeth (fiddle) diluted the thickening pool of testosterone in 2013, but deepened the well of talent.
In addition to more man and woman power, The Avett Brothers continue to add more rock and hard licks to their homegrown punk-bluegrass-folk sound as heard in their debut album, “Country Was” (2002), and followup, “A Carolina Jubilee” (2003). The band began working with famed producer Rick Rubin on 2012’s “The Carpenter,” which featured clean-cut tracks and melodies. They continued a working relationship with Rubin on “Magpie and the Dandelion” (2013).
They most recently announced their ninth album, “True Sadness,” will be released on June 24. Seth Avett wrote in an open letter in March that the album is a “contemporary chapter” in their collection—drawing inspiration from Queen to Tom Petty, Nine Inch Nails to Gillian Welch, Walt Disney to Pink Floyd. He says it offers a “calypso of the 1950s and country of the 1930s.”
After working together for more than a decade, it’s become instinctual for the band to act as one unit, crafting sonic tapestries of Americana lure. “You give up more individual control to become a group,” Crawford explains.
They’ve honed the craft of perfecting their sound with more time in the studio, too. “Country Was” (2002) came to completion in only two days and was recorded in the Avett brothers’ garage. “Emotionalism” (2007) was completed within three weeks. Yet, “True Sadness” took more than two-and-a-half years from song selection to recording.
“I think the key is that we have the luxury of being on our own schedule, which we didn’t necessarily have before,” Crawford adds.
Though the venues, band and touring schedule have grown much larger through 15 years of creating music and giving high-energy performances, they haven’t lost their sensibilities. “We don’t think of ourselves as a big act,” Crawford tells. “We are still very inwardly focused on what we’re doing.”
The Avett Brothers will play the NC Azalea Festival on April 7. Gates open at 5 p.m. and show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets and more can be found at www.ncazaleafestival.org.