Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Avery Set Live @ Pit & Balcony December 21st, 2009

It was a chilly night with just a dusting of snow to make the roads interesting. I was grousing a bit…“why did they have a damn show on a damn Monday…don’t they know I’m tired on Mondays…Mondays suck. I just get back to work and there’s all this crap to do and I haven’t had any “me time” on the weekend…and – anyway - weekends suck too ‘cos I have these unrealistic expectations that I might even enjoy myself and have a good time or something.”

So I get to the show and pick a seat in the back and put my head down so I can be left alone and nobody will talk to me and I can enjoy the show and write about it. Lo and behold Andy Reed and Donny Brown plop themselves down right behind me. It pissed me off ‘cos they are two of the nicest guys in the world and both of them are incredibly gifted musicians. They pulled me out of my turtle’s shell and made me talk, smile and even laugh.

I gradually softened and got ready for Chris Zehnder and the Avery Set. I knew Zehnder from before when he played White’s as a teenager…never met him but I observed him from afar. I knew the kid had talent. The Avery Set has something going, they were more rootsy than pop and Zehnder’s thoughtful lyrics belied his tender years. He was all about family and roots and how his independence fits into the family story – dig his song Redwood Family Tree.

I was really looking forward to this CD Release party. I reviewed Returning to Steam for Review Magazine and had an intimate knowledge of its contents. I listened to the entire disc at least a dozen times and I knew every song by heart. I was waiting with badly bated breath wondering if Zehnder can pull it off.

It was the same rush I had when I first saw the Kinks at the Easttown Theatre in Detroit. It was December 1970 and the Kinks were several years past their British Invasion heyday. I looked at them as an oldies act that somehow resurfaced with a great LP - Lola and the Powerman. I listened to their new groove incessantly until that fateful winter’s day when I finally got top see my heroes up close and personal…
It was a daunting task to feel comfortable hanging out at the corner of Harper & Van Dyke. The neighborhood had an ominous appearance of violence and decay, a by-product of urban renewal and greed. And if you ventured beyond the glow of the Easttown's neon lights, the night turned pitch black and echoed muffled footsteps and disdembodied voices. There were elemental worries about safety. Security guards frisked us at the door looking for weapons, not dope, pills or booze. Indeed weed was abundantly present in the smoky haze that clouded the auditorium. Finally the Kinks came on, introduced one at a time like they were in the NBA. The tension mounted as Ray Davies stepped up to the microphone. And then…then…the Kinks... sucked - BAD. But I loved them anyway. They were just too odd and charming to hate. Ray Davies punched up Top of the Pops and let me know about Harry Rag, Big Sky and Waterloo Sunset. He sang about Victoria and his brother Dave sang Strangers, a beautiful song informed by a selfless utopian vision. They sang the entire album and more, even giving a nod to You Really Got Me and Dedicated Follower of Fashion. It was a thrill to hear Davies sing the songs that I played everyday for a month on my little modular stereo.
THAT is how I felt about the Avery Set show.

Chris Zehnder did the entire CD and more, the sound was intimate, not too loud yet crisp and full and the performance was exquisite. Zehnder sang like a man possessed of the spirit and his multi-instrumentalist bass player Jacob Johnson shone pure like the North Star on a cloudless night. Longtime stalwart drummer Jake Bartlett proved invaluable laying down the beat and handling the tempo changes. That cat was in the pocket.

The opening song Salt Mines found Zehnder in great voice. It’s a treatise about independence and the invisible chains that limit us at the same time they keep us safe. Gotta Move quickly followed, a logical extension of the themes in Salt Mines. Zehnder’s unique emotive style of singing is irresistible. Nobody sounds like him (except for maybe Bright Eyes).

The Avery Set proceeded to blow everyone’s mind with the minor chord landscape of Stranger; the rock & roll two-step rhythms of Wishful Thinking (from the first CD) and the cool chicken pickin’ shuffle of Hello Georgia, a good-time, smile away winner. The guitarist Brandon Harris played his ass off on this track.
Zehnder’s Bible Belt has a Sweetheart of the Rodeo vibe that recalls the Byrds’ You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. Jacob Johnson proved to be a master on the upright bass on Goose Down Misery, a country two-step that swings. Zehnder’s voice smiles despite the dark message of the song - a contrast that works remarkably well.
The waltz-time country emo of Hole in My Head shows how Zehnder’s sound and style defies easy description. This music is so good it doesn’t need to be put in a particular bag. Johnson’s solo on the upright bass was simply incredible.

The Avery Set’s masterpiece, Set My Weight on Me, has Zehnder sitting on the piano bench next to Johnson who plays the simple yet elegant piano riff. Zehnder’s vocal is simply astounding
The aforementioned Redwood Family Tree is inserted near the end of the show. Two States passion carriages a nirvana-like quiet/loud musical construction that gives the song an emotional contrast of tension and release and when Zehnder sings “hold me close” you can sense that it is as much emotional as it is physical. It was a pleasure to hear the Avery Set nail Queen’s rockabilly anthem, A Crazy Little Thing Called Love - a perfect fit to the rhythmic rootsy vibe of the show.
Johnson makes his upright bass sounded like a cello in the magnificent Wandering Shoes. Soul in Song ended the night. It’s a folk protest song that decries the “suits” who attempt to restrict you and encourage conformity. The Avery Set encored with a rollicking American Girl from the Petty songbook. Just for kicks.

This was a superb show, lovingly produced and presented and thematically cohesive. It was a memorable night of music for an adoring hometown crowd. Chris Zehnder and the Avery Set proved to be a formidable musical aggregation worthy of national attention.
It doesn’t get any better than this

Bo White

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