Last year, I read this article in Mental Floss called “The Sine Wave of Funny.” It argued that awkward jokes that aren’t particularly amusing at first can suddenly become hilarious upon aggressive repetition, then not so funny, then twice as funny as they were before, etc., following a pattern mirroring, well, a sine curve. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Family Guy or heard Jeff Tweedy scream, “Nothing!” over and over during the climax of Wilco’s “Misunderstood,” you’re probably aware of this general effect. The theory is a celebration of insistence: If you have the right object, the idea is to keep sticking it in the public’s face until they become transfixed by it—which may explain why the Avett Brothers get away with more maudlin sentimentality than the James brothers got away with loot.
These guys commit to their sap: One of their songs actually has a whole verse condemning the use of cuss words. Sometimes, bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon (who complement the titular, actual brothers Scott and Seth Avett) will play their acoustic instruments back-to-back, wincing like hair-metal maniacs. The rough-hewn Americana crew’s last LP was even called Emotionalism. The next one, a forthcoming major-label debut produced by Rick Rubin, is entitled I and Love and You—a conjunction-spliced oath that doubles as the chorus of Friday night’s set-opener “Headed North.” That song has a second refrain in its bridge—”Brooklyn, Brooklyn, please take me in”—and the adoring Fillmore crowd sang both lines loudly and happily, as if there were no ideological tension inherent in singing “I love you” and shouting out the jaded hipster nexus of the universe in a three-minute span.
Sine waves aside, there are a few plausible reasons why the Avetts can pull this kind of thing off. One is that their more ham-fisted emotional gestures are offset by a tastefully simple approach to melody and arrangement. Another easy theory is that in a time when irony and cynicism have become forms of cultural currency, the simplest sentiments have suddenly become nourishing and redemptive again. What really helps, though, is that the Avett Brothers have managed to locate one of the last uncelebrated youth demographics in American music: a confluence of kids who grew up loving both folk songs and domestic punk bands. According to a banner hanging from one of the Fillmore’s balconies, “This is Avett Nation,” and if it ever becomes part of the union, expect it to be a hotly contested swing-state loosely resembling Oregon. The truth is that this band is now popular enough to feel local wherever they are, so it’s no surprise that their songs work best when directed at a specific place, e.g., the new tune “That’s How I Got to Memphis.”
But however sweet these songs (a combination of roguish self-deprecation, lovelorn laments, and Bible wisdom) are, the Avetts play them with the ferocity of a punk band, strumming them out with a hard locomotive chug, hopping in place, harmonizing in one moment and screaming hoarsely in the next. Whereas punk employed anger to conceal its more earnest underpinnings, these guys more or less turn that logic inside out. They’re so earnest it can almost be grotesque: Not even death can derail these good country people. “If I get murdered in the city,” Scott Avett sings in the aptly chosen encore, “Don’t go revengin’ in my name/One person dead from such is plenty/No need to go get locked away.”