Think outside the boom box: A spiritual experience in Stephens Lake Park

Music columnist Patrick McKenna discusses The Avett Brothers’ Roots N Blues headlining set.

The emotional rollercoaster of seeing one of your all-time favorite musical groups live is an exhilarating, addicting rush. Ever since I experienced my first music festival at Lollapalooza in 2012, I was determined to recapture the elation live music gave me.

Two years and 11 music festivals later, I walked up the Columbia’s Stephens Lake Park Trail towards bright lights and a distant acoustic guitar ringing into the night. I was approaching this past weekend’s Roots N Blues N BBQ Music Festival, now in its eighth year, and I was a few hours away from capturing the moment of unfathomable happiness. I was soon to be seeing The Avett Brothers.

A group out of Concord, North Carolina led by brothers Scott and Seth Avett, The Avett Brothers went from a moderately popular rock group who took emotionally-sparkling bluegrass, hit the accelerator, and coated it with pop hooks, to become one of the biggest roots-rock group in the country.

After 12 albums and 14 active years, the band continues to display an unbelievable amount of passion in its live performances, while making every show a little different by playing a wide-range set list each time.

Now, this is a band that, after listening to their live album “Live, Volume 3” for the first time, made me bawl like a baby for 30 minutes. With the beautiful harmonies, the tidal wave of bluegrass jamming, the heart-wrenching lyrics — the group just hits my soft spot like no other band has done before.

For their Saturday performance, I braced myself for the musical adventure I was about to experience. This was my third time witnessing the Avetts up close and personal, and I could tell from the minute fiddle player Tania Elizabeth and cellist Joe Kwon burst onto the stage, trading a collage of country string riffs, that this time wouldn’t disappoint.

Opening with the stomping live exclusive “Satan Pulls the Strings,” the mood for a Southern-style hootenanny was set to carry the crowd the whole night. Once the first chords of “Laundry Room” were plucked out by Seth, I was already uncontrollably smiling through tears. As the crowd echoed back, “I am a breathing time machine,” the Avetts magic came across: transitioning from a slow, gentle folky pop sound into a bombastic explosion of bluegrass, happy-go-lucky breakdowns.

Seth Avett continuously thanked the crowd for being “such good people for having us,” as the band bounced between ‘I and Love and You’ hits “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” and “Kick Drum Heart” and traditional country and gospel covers “In the Garden” and “Country Blues.”

Each song showed the impassioned efforts each member exalted, with Scott Avett sprinting circles around the stage and leading boisterous rounds of clapping by the audience while fans around me danced and jumped with the rootsy rock. The sweeter-than-honey sound of the brothers singing together floated throughout the park, and each member formed a collective chemistry that showed the growth a group can have after so many performances together.

Fitting to the festivals persona of celebrating older genres, the Avetts closed with a cover of The Spaniels’ “Goodnight, Sweetheart” as the crowd screamed for an endless show. As smiles spanned the entire venue, the lights came on, and another moment of pure bliss had moved on. I could only relish in the fact that I had been lucky enough to be there.

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