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The Avett Brothers play for 150 people in New York on release night 

The Avett Brothers
Home Sweet Home, New York
Tuesday, Sept. 29

In the beginning, The Avett Brothers played an endless string of secret shows, I guess. But they weren't private. Details weren't guarded. Anybody could come. Relatively speaking, very few did. That's not intended to belittle the music Scott and Seth Avett and Bob Crawford (and, more recently, Joe Kwon) have been laboring over for the past decade.

No, it's the opposite, or the most potent testament to this band's power: If these kids from Concord hadn't offered a vision of unhinged bluegrass bliss and honeysuckle-scented Americana, well, everybody (or nobody, as it were) would have kept that secret. But they didn't. So, show by show and fan by fan, the Avett Brothers grew into something truly special—first in North Carolina, then everywhere.

And now they're a major-label monster, recording with Rick Rubin, touring with Dave Matthews and performing on David Letterman. So it was a respectful love letter to their modest beginnings that they celebrated this Tuesday's release of I and Love and You— their biggest, most anticipated, most impressive record yet—with a real New York City secret show.

The unticketed event was a public exhibition of Avett artwork at the street-level Envoy Gallery and a closed-lip gig down below at the 150-capacity Home Sweet Home. Writers, bloggers and label types milled throughout with their plus-ones, while a healthy smattering of diehards got in by jumping through Facebook hoops (tag 10 friends in your status update, kids!) or working magic on the gallery owners during the day-long art exhibition. But industry schlubs and fans alike seemed downright gleeful to pack themselves in the tiny space, especially since the band plays the massive (and utterly impersonal) 3,000-capacity Terminal 5 in two weeks.

It wasn't the first time Envoy offered its walls to an Avett. Scott's work was featured in the gallery during the summer of 2008. Like the last collection, this was a mixture of candle-lit oil paintings (see the beautiful one that graces the cover of Love, for instance), black-and-white prints of a shirtless and shotgun-toting Seth, old show posters and Avett family portraits done in the relief printing technique Scott learned while attending ECU. A passer-by admired a print of the album cover and asked one of the gallery attendants why he didn't know the band. She looked up from her computer, chuckled and shot him a knowing smile that said, "No, you don't know them—yet."

Downstairs at Home Sweet Home—a hipster-bait enclave for rock 'n' roll all-nighters and bartenders that match patrons shot-for-shot—the Avetts transformed the space into their romper room. Cut almost entirely in half, the full dancefloor became the stage, and the band played to a sea of faces that bottlenecked along the narrow corridor beside the bar. Promotional posters of Scott (silhouetted, grasping a banjo) quickly disappeared off the walls as the room grew thick with a crowd that tested the limited capacity.

The scene was surreal: A label guy made sure a bootlegger had permission to capture audio. Two others pushed through the madness with video cameras hoisted safely above their heads. Blackberries and iPhones were held at the ready to start snaring photos and recording video any minute. All this for our Avetts?

"I've been telling my friends about this show all day long, and no one even knows who they are," a guy at the bar said, almost proud to keep them secret. The cluster of people around him started to echo but were cut short when the room filled with a reverent shush.

The boys began with a subdued version of Love's "Laundry Room." The audience was rapt, pin-drop silent. But the moment Seth unleashed a vintage Avett holler, the muted crowed opened up its full-voiced adoration. The new songs had arrived, and while they might not "rock" on record, they surely did on stage. The brothers pulled mostly from Love. The chorus-for-days "And It Spread," and immediate canon addition "Kick Drum Heart," just about the best pop song this band has ever written, were obvious stand outs. The night's closer, "The Perfect Space," was hampered by a suspicious synth piano and some weak electric guitar tone, but both of its parts—the yearning ballad of the opening and closing, and the ramped-up rock of its midsection—absolutely gushed emotion.

The band occasionally broke from new stuff to nod at Emotionalism or Carolina Jubilee, or to relay stories about their early shows in New York at entry-level venues like Arlene's Grocery. "Feels like we're back in our natural habitat," Seth said humbly. Then, from the middle of the bar bottleneck, a voice cracked the perfect response: "Let's go Pirates!"

Greenville's secret? Hardly. The Avetts stopped belonging to anybody a long time ago. But the most inspiring thing about this band remains its ability to convince each and every fan otherwise.

This story was first posted on Scan, our music blog.

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