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Front-row reviews

What: Mofro w/The Avett Brothers

Where: Stella Blue

When: Friday, Mar. 28

The Avett Brothers have done a remarkable thing: They’ve made traditional tunes feel as exciting as pop songs.

To a casual listener, the Avett’s songs might sound like typical — if energetic — bluegrass. But underneath the music’s worn-out-blue-jean-and-week-old-beard exterior, there is something more. Their songs are dynamic, arranged like a sentimental ’70s pop hit and with all the energy of a modern garage group. Imagine an acoustic honky-tonk trio with the songwriting sensibilities of Hoyt Axton and all the feel of a backwoods porch band.

Either way, the Avetts put on a kickin’ live show.

Genre purists may take issue with the Concord-based group’s updating of bluegrass, folk-country and traditional mountain music — but the Stella Blue crowd seemed right there for it.

Brothers Seth and Scott Avett, along with bassist Bob Crawford, produce such raw energy on stage you almost want them to be playing hardcore punk instead of acoustic songs. Rarely does traditional music seem so driven.

Headlining act Mofro has somehow gotten a reputation for being fodder for the jam-band set (the group, in fact, brought out a very jam-friendly-looking crowd), but their music is actually far removed from the typical meandering-jazz-and-rock sonic landscape associated with that clique.

Mofro’s sound is firmly rooted in the swamp-rock tradition, being highly bluesy, a little soul-inspired and substantially gritty. Think a funk-infused Creedence Clearwater Revival with Scott Weiland-style singing thrown in by way of front man John “JJ” Grey’s heavy voice.

Though the show did drag in a few places (particularly during Grey’s occasional between-song ramblings about love, truckers and evil developers), Mofro were altogether solid. Many were framed around environmental images — particularly the disintegration of the band’s rural north-central-Florida stomping grounds — but Mofro managed to avoid becoming overly preachy, opting to give the crowd something to dance to rather than something to get bummed about.

The band maintained a varied set, ending the evening with an a cappella number followed by a slightly jammy, fully swamp-rock-powered encore.

The listening room (album reviews)

Rock Bottom Island, Raven (Raven, 2002)

Chances are you’ll hate Rock Bottom Island — instantly — on first listen. It’s loud. It’s noisy. It sounds a little like a pair of staggering drunks with very out-of-tune instruments playing songs from an understandably never-released songbook co-written by Trent Reznor, Tom Waits and Jimmy Buffett.

Yes, it’s that scary.

At times, the tunes are painfully unmelodic; in fact, some tracks are almost completely unlistenable.

Of course, if you know what you’re listening for, Rock Bottom Island also, occasionally, borders on being absolutely brilliant.

The secret’s in the sorrow.

Listen for the pain — those elements that could only come from the aggrieved minds of local singer/songwriters George Glass and Michael Channing, known collectively as Raven. While the majority of this spirit-ripping material comes from Glass, it’s Channing’s atmospheric bass lines that make this album different — and, believe it or not, more palatable — than Glass’ solo efforts. As a musical litmus test on whether you’ll love Raven or loathe them, cue up “Atlas,” Rock Bottom’s most powerful track. Glass’ painful soul-howl will either gut your spirit or burn your ears as he moans out lines like, “I am the drowning sea/ All the poets they talk to me/ All the hippies they drink from me/ All the hookers they bathe in me/ All the demons they piss in me/ All the drunkards they cry in me/ All the has-beens they die in me/ I am the drowning sea.”

Music aside, the album itself is a strange case, noticeably weak in sound quality (the group is rumored to have played pizza boxes on some songs instead of more traditional percussion instruments). The home-studio feel doesn’t exactly detract from the essence of the album, but it certainly doesn’t make Rock Bottom any more listenable.

Physically, the CD packaging is of remarkably high quality for a homemade effort. The accompanying booklet is one of the most informative and well-designed I’ve seen in a local release.

Of course, a well-made CD booklet isn’t a very compelling reason to buy an album when the music itself is no easy ride. But if you can avoid the very easy temptation to instantly hate Asheville’s Raven, you might find yourself deeply moved by their listener-polarizing music.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.


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