Avett Brothers pack the Petersen in band's biggest Pittsburgh show yet

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How big will the Avett Brothers get? Can you imagine them headlining a summer jam one day at Heinz Field?

It's not that far-fetched given the band's long, steady rise from tiny Club Cafe through memorable shows at Diesel, the Three Rivers Arts Festival, Ches-Arena and Stage AE, to Saturday night's bash at the Petersen Events Center, where it drew one of the biggest concert crowds in the building's history (9,000-plus).

"We've been visiting here for a while, and it's just home ... it's just home," Scott Avett said, in a slight figure of speech.

The boys, who are really at home in North Carolina, were a bit of an oddity just over a decade ago as a trio pounding away at banjo, acoustic guitar and double bass with punk energy. Now those bands are everywhere, pushing the Avetts toward a more polished pop sound under producer Rick Rubin.

There was nothing polished about their entrance, setting a Saturday night tone with the vintage hillbilly rager "Talk on Indolence," a screaming cover of John Denver's "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy" and joyful recent track "Live and Die."

That wasn't a sustainable pace for two hours and 20-plus songs. Scott and Seth Avett -- with bassist Bob Crawford, cellist Joe Kwon, drummer Mike Marsh and keyboardist Paul Defiglia -- did slow it down for ballads, maybe a bit too many for some tastes. The set list, which changes significantly night to night, hit all speeds and spanned the discography, from 2002's "November Blue" to a sprinkling from last year's "Magpie and the Dandelion" ("Good to You," "Part from Me," "Vanity").

"Pretty Girl from Chile," the spiciest of the "Pretty Girl" series, had Seth and the charismatic Mr. Kwon venturing out to the crowd for a Latin duet. Yes, the Avetts have hit the ramp stage of their career, and they made good use of it. The brothers set up there for the hushed ballad "Murder in the City," drawing hollers from the crowd on the references to family, for "Ten Thousand Words," a quiet gem that best reveals the sibling harmonies, and for the weeper "Tear Down the House."

Fans of the early stuff were served by old stompers "Love Like the Movies" and "Distraction #74." The crowd's biggest bond seemed to be five years back with "I and Love and You," which provided the majestic title track, the beautiful drama of "Laundry Room" and "Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise," harmony-heavy "And it Spread" and power-pop change-up "Slight Figure of Speech."

Should the Avetts play a stadium they can bring along friends like Old Crow Medicine Show, which opened and helped finish on Saturday. Old Crow is one of those bands a headliner easily could fear, as it brings show-stealing potential.

The Nashville band hit the stage seven strong with a rowdy oldtimey sound that was declared authentic by no less than Doc Watson, so none of us are qualified to argue. Old Crow felt like a headliner, throwing a hoedown with songs like "Take 'Em Away," "Humdinger" and "Wagon Wheel" and a set-closing cover of Tom Petty's "American Girl."

They returned for the Avetts' encore to hit Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again," the traditional "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" and Spaniels' send-off "Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite."

Neither band took a short-cut to get to such a big venue, and once again it showed in the down-home honesty and passion of the performances. It will be surprising to see what the next level might be.

smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576.

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