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Charlotte Speedway
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Charlotte Speedway

Filmed at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 23, 2020, the Avett Brothers perform in front of a drive-in audience and live-stream fans. Relive an innovative, joyful event that helped usher in the return of live music in a safe, socially distanced manner.

Emotional Virtuosos

3 Min Read

The great 2020 pandemic shutdown forced a worldwide rethinking of how to do live music as artists scrambled to find solutions involving livestreams or social-distancing. North Carolina’s Avett Brothers seized upon that moment with a get-back move, reconnecting with their own past in various ways.

For their first live show in nearly six months, the Avetts chose the unlikely hometown venue of Charlotte Motor Speedway — a local landmark, and one they’d driven by and fantasized about since childhood. For a band that started out busking, often for people who were profoundly disinterested, this was a dream come true.

Of course, they arrived on the premises in a hopped-up car, Seth Avett at the wheel of his restored 1965 Ford Galaxie and taking a spin around the track. And when they stepped out of the car, it was as the Avett Brothers of a decade ago — the quartet of Seth and older brother Scott, bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joseph Kwon. This was their lineup when “I and Love and You” was released, a 2009 breakthrough album that still stands as the apotheosis of the Avetts’ less-is-more aesthetic even as it turned them into an arena-level act.

Subsequent years have found the Avetts headlining major festivals with as many as seven musicians onstage, and the shows were always good. But there’s always been something ineffable about the Avetts’ scruffier, stripped-down roots. Even at their biggest and loudest, the best and most-connected moments of Avett Brothers shows usually came when they’d peel down to the basics.

This show is two-plus hours of pop-up stage goodness for an audience of 1,500 carloads of fans on the racetrack infield with thousands more tuning in for the livestream. No electric guitars, just acoustic instruments. If you don’t count Scott banging out rhythms on the body of his banjo, the only percussion instrument onstage is his kick drum. It’s as elemental as they’ve sounded in years.

Seeing the performance in up-close video form, augmented with drone footage for long-view perspective, gives us a renewed appreciation for the brothers’ longtime actor/observer dynamic as dual bandleaders. The Avett Brothers oeuvre represents a long, sprawling quest with Scott and Seth typically alternating as lead vocalist of different songs; one telling his tale, the other standing by in support with harmonies or the occasional call-and-response interjection. In their hands, it’s a form of bearing witness.

The setlist for this show extends from the very first song on their very first record (“Pretty Girl From Matthews,” from the 2002 album “Country Was”) all the way up to “The Third Gleam,” which had just been released. As always, the heart of the set comes from the period bookended by “I and Love and You” and “Emotionalism” (2007), which account for nearly one-third of the 26 songs — standards including “Laundry Room,” “Murder in the City” and “Go to Sleep.”

Technical proficiency has never been what the Avetts are all about. They’re emotional, not instrumental, virtuosos.

Naturally, the band’s tightness will be in the ear of the beholder. But technical proficiency has never been what the Avetts are all about. They’re emotional, not instrumental, virtuosos. And as far as they’ve seemingly traveled from their hardscrabble roots, those roots are never far from the surface. This show is a lovely reminder that they can still draw on that power.

David Menconi is a journalist in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was 2019 Piedmont Laureate. He spent 34 years writing for daily newspapers, 28 of them at the Raleigh News & Observer. He holds a Master’s in journalism from the University of Texas and an English Bachelor of Arts from Southwestern University. He has written for Billboard, Rolling Stone, The New York Times and Spin while publishing four books, most recently “Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk” (2020, University of North Carolina Press).

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