Avett Brothers in Manhattan
Tuesday, October 5 2004
Gretchen and I have been attending an intermediate Spanish class three hours each week, but for some reason I feel like I know less Spanish now than when we began. We never much liked our teacher, who tends to come into class late and take class time to do things he should be doing elsewhere. So today we both dropped the class. We caught our teacher in the hallway after class, which we hadn't bothered to attend. Upon seeing our forms, he gasped "Dyour leaving me?" We'd sat in the front row and been his most attentive students.
In the afternoon Gretchen and I dressed up for the evening and drove down to Manhattan to attend a show at BB King's on Time's Square. The headliner of this show was to be the Subdudes, but our interest was the opening act, a trio from North Carolina called the Avett Brothers. Gretchen had seen the Avett Brothers open for Michelle Shocked and was so blown away by their performance that she wanted to see them again as soon as possible, and she wanted me to see them too. I didn't know anything about them except for what Gretchen told me and a song that she accidentally played me on the car stereo (otherwise the way they sound was supposed to be a surprise). Their music might be considered Bluegrass, based on the instruments that they use. But it tends to be slower than Bluegrass, with lots of unusual dynamics, tempo changes, and beautiful singing (including harmonies).
There are well-established systems in place to deliver people to and from Times Square, so it's a little odd to there in an ordinary passenger car. This is particularly true when it's rush hour but you're going against the flow so the driving is quick and easy and even free parking is easy to find. Gretchen was doing the driving, and she let me out so I could go into the venue and get us good seats while she found a parking spot.
BB King's is a largish (but not vast) Art Decco dining space with a stage. After a little confusion with the ticket seller, I managed to secure a prime seat. When Gretchen arrived, we both ordered cocktails, since the experience we had in mind was the kind where people sit around at tables drinking hard liquor.
Early in our meal, three middle aged folks were seated at the other end of our eight-seat table. I could tell right away that one of them would be annoying, but for some reason Gretchen insisted on chatting with them, even offering the annoying guy a sip of her drink (he turned it down - a wise course of action when dealing with strangers in New York City). Later we somehow got roped into a conversation they were having about Cat Stevens (or Yusuf Islam), an entertainer whom they all despised. I'd heard them say something about Cat Steven's anti-semitism, so I piped up with a nugget of information that I thought was a fact, that Cat Stevens was born a Jew named Steven Katz. "Oh, no!" the annoying guy insisted with conviction, "Stephen Demetre Georgiou was his original name, and he was Greek Orthodox." [It turns out that the annoying guy was correct.]
Just to get one matter out of the way, the food. Both Gretchen and I enjoyed our appetizers, but we weren't especially pleased with our main course. Gretchen ordered a fat loaf of macaroni and cheese and somehow found the fortitude to eat half of it.
Then our band, the Avett Brothers, took the stage. They were just three guys, one with a stand up bass that he occasionally twirled, one with a banjo, and one with a guitar. The latter two actually are brothers (with the last name Avett) and occasionally as they play they kick things up a notch by resorting to pedal-driven percussion. The banjo player has a kick drum, while the guitarist has a high hat as well as tambourine, which he jangles by stomping his foot next to it. All three have microphones, and they often sing. Their harmonies are especially "creamy" (an adjective I think is perfect for describing harmonies; I first heard it used to describe the harmonies of Fleetwood Mac). They play with incredible energy (Gretchen says that they normally have someone standing by to hand them a replacement instrument when a string breaks). The pedal-driven drum equipment simply taps into the foot stomping that would be happening whether it was there or not. I've never seen an all-acoustic band with some a keen awareness of the emotional power of dynamics. When a powerful melodic hook needs a little more punch, first they throw in a three-part harmony, then they add that high hat, and then to really drive things home they drop the tempo to half the beats per second that it had been.
The lyrics have an uplifting, ernest quality. You can hear in there the delicious naivité of youth coupled with just a tiny dash of bewilderment at the world's perplexing cruelty. It's a good balance for a group of young men from North Carolina to achieve (though their bassist is actually from New Jersey and looks exactly like Ray and Nancy's friend Hot Tom).
It says something about the Avett Brothers that I took no notice of the passage of time while they played. And when they left the stage it was heartbreaking. Gretchen shouted at them to please play the first song from their latest album, but it seemed like a lost cause since they were just an opening band and opening bands don't do encores.
But then they came out again to play the song Gretchen had requested! They dedicated it to the "girl who came all the way from Woodstock just to see us." (That was a great way to put it considering what "Woodstock" means in the popular consciousness.) For a short time Gretchen was a hero to the folks around us; a woman from a neighboring table even sought her attention by shouting "Hey Woodstock!" (For people in New York City, everything within fifty miles of Woodstock is Woodstock.)
After the show, the band came out and sat with us at our table for awhile chatting about things that I can't recall. By now the Subdudes had taken the stage with their watered-down Cajun-rock sound and I found myself taking an immediate dislike to them. I told the Avett Brothers' bassist that his was a difficult act to follow.
A couple drinks later, the Avetts had vanished into their rockstar backstage area and I found myself growing increasingly restless from the songs cranked out by the Subdudes. Gretchen and I went up to the street for awhile and briefly saw Cheney debating Edwards on one of the many building-sized Times Square video displays.
After the show, Gretchen wanted to catch whatever remained of the final WNBA game between Sacramento and Seattle, so we found an Irish bar somewhere, Hell's Kitchen I think, where Gretchen had no difficulty convincing the bartender to bring up the game. Sadly, Sacramento was losing badly. This could only mean one thing: the 2004 championship would be a battle between two teams having unusually large numbers of blondes.
By the time we started driving home, I was so drunk that I completely passed out and didn't reawaken until we were passing the Hurley Mountain Inn. It was the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes for the first time in over an hour. In the half light it looked fully 19th Century, like a sepia-toned Daguerreotype.
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