Maybe it’s the biggest news of the winter. The Cumberland County Civic Center, recently reopened after a major renovation, is back in the concert business. Two roots bands with national followings, The Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show, will take the stage March 3 as the CCCC reasserts its key role in southern Maine’s music picture.
Three days later another quality roots band will hold forth at One Longfellow Square: Roosevelt Dime, a quartet from Brooklyn.
Celebrating the roots of another continent, the African Children’s Choir will give a concert at Merrill Auditorium on March 2.
The biggest arts and entertainment news of the winter is the reopening of the Cumberland County Civic Center, re-establishing the 37-year-old downtown Portland edifice as southern Maine’s premier concert venue for major touring shows. And it’s happening March 3 with a twin-bill of big roots acts.
A couple of months ago, Rolling Stone accorded the accolade of “America’s biggest roots band” to The Avett Brothers, a pair of siblings who grew up on a farm in North Carolina. Scott is 37 and Seth is four years younger; they have played music together since childhood.
After decades of experimentation in various genres of music – some of it utterly unsuccessful – the two brothers today form the core of a five-man band that is touring the country and filling large auditoriums with a hard-driving sound that’s rooted in heart-felt songwriting and a souped-up bluegrass sound, attained by augmenting the Avetts’ guitar and banjo with other instruments, such as cello, keyboards and drums.
The Avetts have released eight CDs since 2002, but their first national successes were with the most recent three: “I and Love and You” (2009), “The Carpenter” (2012) and “Magpie and the Dandelion” (2013) all charted in the top 20, with the latter two reaching the top five.
Much of their recent success has been attributed to Rick Rubin, who has produced their three best-selling albums. “The Avetts have a completely unique and original form of roots music,” Rubin says. “The first thing that struck me was the sincerity in their vocals. I really believed them.”
Rubin focused on the artistic polarity that separates the brothers as individuals and simultaneously unifies their act. “Scott tends to write and sing the darker songs, while Seth sings the part of the optimist,” Rubin explains. “They feel life in a deep way.”
Among their major musical influences, the Avetts cite legendary bluegrass guitarist Doc Watson, who lived a couple of miles from their childhood farm.
Second billing on the March 3 Civic Center concert goes to another band with strong connections to Watson: Two decades ago Old Crow Medicine Show was discovered by Watson while busking outside a North Carolina pharmacy. He promoted Old Crow Medicine Show at his own bluegrass festival and success followed quickly.
Since 1998 Old Crow has been at the forefront of bluegrass-centered Americana music. Last year the group was recognized by the Americana Music Association with its Trailblazer Award. Last September the band achieved the ultimate in recognition for its old-time country style: membership in the Grand Ole Opry.
I’ve seen Old Crow a couple of times, as headliners at outdoor bluegrass music festivals, and it’s an extraordinary act, characterized by instrumental prowess, strong vocals, interesting theatricality and an expansive repertoire that ranges from 1930s to contemporary.
Old Crow’s signature song is “Wagon Wheel,” a gently rocking melodic song about a homesick, dead-broke southerner who’s hitchhiking back to Dixie to restart life with his girlfriend. It was co-written by Bob Dylan and Old Crow front man Ketch Secor. Old Crow’s own recording was certified platinum, and it’s been covered by many others, most recently last year by Darius Rucker, who had a Top 40 single.
The Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show appear at 7:30 p.m. March 3 at the Cumberland County Civic Center in downtown Portland. Call the CCCC at 775-3458.
To listen to the music of Roosevelt Dime is to take a journey through American roots music. The four guys, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., have been inspired by Appalachian string bands, Memphis soul and New Orleans Dixieland. Plus there’s some additional inspiration from the musical melting pot of the borough they call home.
Roosevelt Dime has forged a distinctive sound called “Steamboat Soul,” which includes saxophone, clarinet and drums in addition to the basic combination of guitar, banjo and bass that forms the nucleus of roots. The band members developed their unique melding of talents by busking in the streets and subways, where they learned what it took to stop someone in their tracks, turn them from a stranger into a listener and from a listener into a sidewalk dancer.
After years of thrilling audiences at live performances, festivals and venues across the country, Roosevelt Dime recently released its first CD, titled “Full Head of Steam.” It’s mostly a recording of live performances, of the sort that’s coming up in the Port City.
Catch Roosevelt Dime at 8 p.m. March 6 at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland. Call 761-1757.
Roots of the African continent and the culture of its indigenous people are celebrated this Sunday when Portland Ovations brings another top traveling act to Merrill Auditorium. The African Children’s Choir melts the hearts of audiences with their charming smiles, beautiful voices and lively songs and dances.
Founded in 1984 from orphans of a civil war in Uganda, the choir has grown in numbers, stature and global reach, including a performance before Queen Elizabeth II. The current North American touring company comprises eight boys and eight girls between the ages of eight and 10. Repertoire comprises both native music from several countries, plus other selections from the African diaspora, including traditional Gospel songs written in America.
Revenues from the tour support activities related to the choir, such as education, care and relief and development programs. Music for Life (the parent organization of the choir) works in seven African countries: Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. MFL has educated more than 52,000 children and impacted the lives of more than 100,000 people through its relief and development programs during its history. MFL’s purpose is to help create new leadership for tomorrow’s Africa, starting with education.
Portland Ovations presents the African Children’s Choir at 4 p.m. March 2 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.