It was only a year ago that The Avett Brothers last brought their energetic, driving brand of folk rock to the Santa Barbara Bowl, but their return to the venue Saturday night was met with first-time enthusiasm from a near-capacity crowd. Well-deserved enthusiasm at that, as North Carolina-born brothers Scott and Seth Avettt and their non-familial compatriots, bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon, delivered a performance just shy of perfect.
Following an opening set by Lake Street Dive, an eclectic quintet fronted by the strikingly charismatic and soulful-voiced Rachael Price, the Avetts kicked off their set with the jubilant “High Steppin’,” a new song from their upcoming LP “Closer than Together.” It’s not uncommon for new songs to receive a somewhat muted reception from audiences at live shows, but the crowd responded as if it were one of the group’s immortal classics. This was apparent from the moment younger but taller brother Seth Avett began the song’s spoken-word section.
“See, you can only live one day at a time, only watch one band at a time,” he said. That statement’s second part provoked an eruption of cheers, and the audience was hooked until the house lights came up shortly before 10 p.m.
The siblings were in a state of perpetual motion throughout the show, jumping and swaggering about the stage when away from the microphone or rocking their bodies in unison as they sang in harmony. The most animated non-Avett member surprisingly proved to be Korean-born Joe Kwon, who made rocking out on a cello look easy.
Though early on one got the impression that Scott Avett would handle the higher tenor parts while his younger brother would sing with a lower voice, both were revealed to be equally adept in both registers as they traded lead and harmony vocals from song to song. Often, they traded lead vocal duties within songs, from the acoustic ballad “Morning Song” to the upbeat “Aint’ No Man.” The latter featured no instruments besides the rhythm section of Mr. Crawford’s bass and the drums of touring member Mike Marsh, a foundation upon which the brothers took turns leading the audience through the song’s gospelish melody.
From melancholic swooner “I Wish I Was” to the poppy “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” there was no shortage of synergy between the band and its fans, as the crowd sang full-heartedly and lent the evening an atmosphere of romance.
In addition to their impeccably blended voices, Scott and Seth Avett displayed impressive instrumental chops as well. For a bulk of the set, the elder Avett strummed aggressively on an electric banjo while the junior brother did likewise on an acoustic guitar. Though much of their playing was rhythm playing instead of lead, their hammered-out chords lent propulsive energy to songs like “Satan Pulls the Strings,” “Die Die Die,” and “Laundry Room.” The brothers’ lead playing while not by any means virtuosic, was always tasteful and melodic. One would be hard pressed to listen to Seth Avett’s gorgeous acoustic passages on “I Wish I Was” and find an extraneous note.
It wasn’t until over halfway through the show for the song “Vanity” that Seth Avett equipped himself with an electric guitar, on which he later played an impressive cover of the traditional bluegrass instrumental “Black Mountain Rag” during the encore. It was when the band returned to the stage after the main set that the concert hit its lowest point, an initially fun and breezy rendition of “Slight Figure of Speech” drawn out with a drum solo from Mr. Marsh. Amid the tasteful playing and restraint that dominated the set, his rhythmic showcase seemed terribly out of place.
This off-key diversion was quickly corrected when the band concluded its set with the romantic ballad “No Hard Feelings.” Couples in the audience swayed, embraced, and sang along as the band left them on a heartfelt high note. If not for the preceding misstep, they may have left the fans with a flawless show.