Having seen The Avett Brothers a half dozen times in a variety of smaller venues, it was with a mix of anticipation and trepidation that I greeted news of their leap to the arena stage, with a show at Boston’s TD Garden, a venue more typically host to acts like Springsteen, U2 or the Stones.
Their current tour has seen the Avetts mix in large arena shows in certain markets – they had played Brooklyn’s full-size Barclay’s Center the night before their Boston gig – with dates at the kind of mid-size halls they have generally been playing in recent years. The big question, of course, is can a group that’s made its name with forceful live shows in more intimate venues make the transition to the larger stage of an arena without losing the compressed energy and connection to the audience that got them there in the first place.
For The Avett Brothers, the answer is yes they can. Boston has always been kind to the boys from North Carolina, and the band put on a rousing show before a not-quite-sell-out crowd at the 18,000-seat arena. An arena show will never be the same as a gig at a basement club where you can leap up and touch the ceiling, but the Avetts took some steps toward making the large hall more fan-friendly, including opening the front half of the floor to a general admission crowd and installing an extension to the stage that jutted out into the audience, close enough for fans to reach out and touch.
After a rollicking and well-received set from supporting act Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avetts took the stage a little after 8:30 pm and opened up with “Another Is Waiting” off their most recent album, Magpie and the Dandelion. More than most bands nowadays, the Avetts mix up their set lists significantly from night to night. There are a handful of numbers they tend to feature at every show – “I And Love And You,” “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” “Laundry Room” – but these staples are slotted in different places from one show to the next, and surrounded by a rotating catalog of other tunes.
Midway through the show the band clicked into high gear with the rave-up “Slight Figure of Speech,” which is sort of a Beatlesque or Buddy Holly-like tune reimagined by someone stuffed full of amphetamines. They followed this with a punched up cover of John Denver’s classic “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” one of two nods they made to 1970s-era singer-songwriters over the course of the night. The other was Jim Croce’s “Operator,” which Seth Avett covered alongside bassist Bob Crawford as part of a mini-suite of acoustic numbers the band performed out on the extended stage. They put their rocking shoes back on for a closing run that included the fiery “Talk on Indolence,” “Kick Drum Heart,” “Go to Sleep” and “Skin and Bones.”
It’s always tough to see a band you’ve liked in the clubs move up to playing arenas, but it’s hard to argue against letting a group like The Avett Brothers expand their reach as wide as possible. Here’s to hoping they don’t forego smaller halls altogether, but I wouldn’t hesitate to see them again in any size arena.