If someone tells you that The Avett Brothers’ performance at the Santa Barbara Bowl on October 10 was the best show of the summer thus far, don’t argue with them. They very well could be correct. The set list was perfect; it was musically flawless, delivered in a seemingly earnest and charming manner. But such a distinction raises the question, what makes for a great performance?
The Avett Brothers’ song selection and transitions were pristine, progressing seamlessly from song to song, each feeling relevant and appropriate. Seth and Scott Avett resembled marionettes while dancing on stage, and bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon (whose facial hair/mustache combination suggests that he’s decent at throwing knives) similarly contorted their knees. Remarkably, none of these feverish movements seemed to have any impact on the sound, which resonated from their aesthetically appropriate instruments. The songs were delivered in chunks, with a slew of old-timey covers and bluegrass-style songs intermixed with electric-guitar-heavy ballads. And, whether they were gathered around a single mike and spotlight or marching around the stage while shredding through solos, they pulled off each and every bit perfectly. Almost too perfectly.
Don’t misunderstand — it’s clear that The Avett Brothers are a well-oiled performance machine, but it should be noted that it’s difficult for machines to simulate heart or warmth. The “spot-on-ness” of The Avett Brothers’ appeal — the clothes, the facial hair, the chatter in between songs — is all perfect North Carolina aw-shucks-y. It’s entirely “on brand,” and it can come across a bit like the millennial indie-folk answer to the Stepford Wives.
In light of such aesthetic impeccability, it should be noted that a change in background near the end of the set felt especially noticeable. A projection screen, which had been used to display images of water and Depression-era dancing, was replaced by a starkly illustrated image of drippy paint and crows. It’s perhaps a bit nitpicky, but when every other aspect of The Avett Brothers feels so carefully executed, using a background that felt borrowed from a 2005 emo punk band seemed more significant than it probably was.
All in all, it’s difficult to imagine how The Avett Brothers could have done a better job, outside of being a bit less perfect. Less rehearsed. A smidge more … human. It is, after all, the reason why so many fell for them in the first place.