For The Avett Brothers, a hello at Tanglewood is also 'goodbye'
On Aug. 18, the band announced on their website that keyboardist Paul Defiglia would be leaving the group after Sept. 3, just two days after the band's scheduled performance at the Koussevitzky Music Shed. Defiglia wasn't an original group member (North Carolinian brothers Seth and Scott Avett were the founders) but has toured with the band since 2011.
"It's heartbreaking," bassist Bob Crawford told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview. "Like, it's a breakup, you know what I'm saying? It's like, there [are] no bad feelings; it's just what he wants to do."
Crawford wouldn't divulge Defiglia's future plans, though he said his bandmate wants to do more studio work and has "other irons in the fire."
Even within a close-knit band, Crawford's affection for Defiglia is unique. When Crawford's son, Sam, was about to be born, the bassist took a short leave from the group. He tapped Defiglia, who had played bass for Langhorne Slim, to fill in. Crawford made the same choice shortly thereafter when his daughter, Hallie, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Crawford would, on rare occasions, play in shows during the subsequent year, but Defiglia handled the bulk of upright bass duties and, according to Crawford, did so swimmingly.
"He's an amazing bass player," Crawford said.
Crawford eventually returned to the group (Hallie, now 7, has been successful treated, her father said), creating a new, far more innocuous problem: The group no longer had a spot for Defiglia but wanted to keep him around. "We said, if you can play piano, [you] can stay," Crawford said. "And he learned how to play piano."
For Crawford, Defiglia's selflessness and skill have been the pillars of his value to the band. "The way he made the transition from bass to keyboard and his willingness to do whatever he was asked — and to do it expertly — has just been an amazing resource for us," Crawford said, "and it's really helped us expand our sound, and it's just going to be a transition at this point."
Transition is nothing new for The Avett Brothers; the group has been in the midst of one since the rockers teamed with renowned producer Rick Rubin prior to releasing "I and Love and You," the group's sixth studio album, in 2009. While the band gained indie prominence with three members (the Avetts and Crawford) cranking out stringy hits distinguished by the Avetts' upbeat harmonies, Rubin helped push the band into "folk pop," adding more instrumentation as the band swelled to seven touring members (the Avetts, Crawford, cellist Joe Kwon, drummer Mike Marsh, fiddler Tania Elizabeth and Defiglia).
"It was a whole new world," Crawford said of him and the rest of the Southern folk group traveling to Malibu, Calif., to work with Rubin.
It was worth the trip. "I and Love and You" garnered critical acclaim, and the title track remains arguably the group's most popular song. The Avett Brothers have continued collaborating with Rubin through their ninth and most recent studio album, "True Sadness," which was released in 2016 and represents the band's most significant departure from its early sound. Though some fans and critics yearn for the Avetts' raw, barely accompanied vocals, "True Sadness" still traverses the sentimental subject matter that the band's loyalists have historically celebrated. Crawford called the Grammy-nominated album "the flowering of our skill" and the band's best record yet.
"It was the peak of my career in terms of studio [work]...and we filmed a documentary about all of it," Crawford said, referring to Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio's film, "May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers," that theaters in the U.S. and Canada — among them Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield — will show for one night only on Sept. 12.
With an expanding sound and a foray into film, The Avett Brothers, then, were already in a state of evolution before Defiglia's decision to leave. Crawford, who said the band has no plans to replace the keyboardist, welcomes the additional change from a musical standpoint.
"It's exciting to reinvent," he said. At concerts, seven musicians often play songs that were once three-man numbers, he noted.
"The songs are malleable like that, and so we're just going to fit them into a six-person package rather than a seven-person package. It's going to be neat. It may be a complete disaster," Crawford said.
No matter which form they ultimately take, The Avett Brothers' songs will resound in their current seven-musician shape for one of the last times in Lenox.
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