At The Beach – The Avett Brothers (and friends)
Hard Rock Hotel, Riviera Maya, Mexico
February 09-12, 2017
Writer/Photographer: Josh Mintz
It was almost a cliche. Taking the stage on the very first night of their At The Beach festival in Mexico, the Avett Brothers kicked off their headlining set with “At The Beach.”
And, it was perfect.
There’s something to be said about pulling off the most obvious song choice possible, and the Avett Brothers did just that. It was emblematic of the four days at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya – 96+ hours of sun, music, sand, music, drinks, food, music, and good people.
And more music.
My wife traveled down to Mexico with a “Hakuna Matata” t-shirt, that, late in the weekend, somehow ended up on my torso as we played cornhole. Those familiar with Disney’s The Lion King know that it means “no worries,” and really, that’s what At The Beach was all about.
Those who made the trek down to the festival were a fortunate few – the event sold out fairly rapidly, and while the Hard Rock is a giant complex, it didn’t feel cramped despite the sell-out crowd. There was always a spot by the pool or a chair on the beach. There always seemed to be a table at one of the many restaurants, provided you timed it right.
Speaking of the food…choose any of the restaurants – the French restaurant, or the Brazilian steak house, or the Asian restaurant, or the buffet, or any of the others – and as this was an all-inclusive resort, you didn’t have to worry about paying the bill (as you paid it in advance).
From an adult beverage standpoint, there was a stocked fridge and four-bottle liquor dispenser – rum, scotch, vodka, and tequlia – in every room. While the bourbon selection was lacking, the tequila offerings were solid. My family has done the all-inclusive thing enough to know that having choices like Don Julio reposado isn’t always the case.
The one downside? These stupid, stupid birds that started chirping at about 5 or 6 a.m. I think they’re called a Grackle, and good lord, are they loud. There’s nothing like being woken up when you’re on vacation by some winged creature that sounded like it was shouting through a megaphone.
The iguanas on the property were pretty cool, though.
While At the Beach was about the concerts, there was so much to take in that didn’t happen at night; during the day there was a full afternoon schedule of activities.
Like to play beer pong? We’re in Mexico, so how about margarita pong!
Enjoy Mexican food? Take a cooking class, hosted by Avett Brothers cellist Joe Kwon, who graciously took the time to take photos with all who wanted one.
Poolside, there was a lip sync contest hosted by Band of Horses multi-instrumentalist Ryan Monroe one day, and a wildly entertaining Name that Tune bingo game the next. Cloud 9 Adventures packed the days with enough activities that if you didn’t leave the property on one of the many excursions, you weren’t missing out.
The highlight of all of the day-time activities, though, was definitely the Songwriter’s Worskhop, which took place on the first full day. People started claiming seats over an hour in advance of the actual start time, and what was billed as a “workshop” turned into a Q&A with Seth and Scott Avett, intermingled with an acoustic show. The brothers played five songs to the crowd, but the real treat was the banter between the two.
Each night of the event had a different opener, and retrospectively, it’s a bit ironic. In advance of the shows, I got on iTunes and listened to the acts I wasn’t familiar with. My take-away was that while I could dig into The Devil Makes Three and Lake Street Dive, what I heard from Brandi Carlile didn’t do much for me.
I was so, so, soooo wrong.
From our room on the Concert Courtyard we could hear soundcheck every night, and during Carlile’s pre-show tune-up, I sat there, and after about two or three minutes I looked over at my wife and remarked how great she sounded.
But more on Carlile later.
Lake Street Dive was a great first night opener. Rachael Price’s vocals are staggering, and the band delivered a phenomenal opening night set that featured songs from their latest release Side Pony, highlighted by “Call Off Your Dogs” and “Godawful Things.” However, the next day, the most talked-about song from their set was their version of Queen’s “Bohemain Rhapsody,” which undoubtedly won them more than a few new fans.
The Devil Makes Three opened the second night and provided a stark contrast from the first night’s opening set. A bit more in line with the Avett’s Americana leanings, they provided a fun intro to the second night of Avetts. The final show of their tour, the band left it all on stage. “Stranger” was upbeat and there were some cool covers in the set, but for me, they began to drag a bit about half way through.
Getting back to Carlile, she opened the third night and I can’t say enough good things about her. As a Carlile novice I had zero expectations, but was blown away by “The Eye” and “Mainstream Kid,” and her choice of covers – Cyndi Lauper’s (Robert Hazard) “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” and a jaw-dropping version of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” were nothing short of amazing. The balls it takes to take on Robert Plant’s vocals…BIG. But Carlile nailed it. Her harmonies with the Hanseroth twins over the course of the set were mesmerizing, and the Zeppelin cover to bring it all home was perfection.
Jason Isbell is a favorite in our household and one of the key reasons we pulled the trigger on the trip to begin with. Sadly, his wife Amanda Shires apparently got sick and couldn’t join the band on stage, but his set was everything we hoped for – a mix of newer and older songs, acoustic and electric. Kicking things off with “Stockholm,” his band, the 400 Unit, was in fine form. “Something More Than Free” was powerful as always, and the Isbell Drive-By Truckers songs (“Outfit” and “Decoration Day”) had the crowd begging for more. Capping it all off, though, was the set-ending “Children of Children,” a Laurel Canyon-esque tune from the latest album that’s as powerful a track as Isbell has written, both musically and lyrically.
The Main Event
Event hosts the Avett Brothers headlined three of the four nights. Unsurprisingly, those nights got better as the weekend progressed.
The first night (Thursday, 2/9) the band just seemed to lack a little something – maybe the band was a little worn out from travel, or cognizant of the fact that it was going to be a long four days. They opened with the aforementioned “At The Beach,” an obvious choice but certainly apropos. There were some great moments, such as a rowdy “Victims of Life” and the always-fun “Colorshow,” but we walked away from the first show knowing that it was going to get better.
Friday night, the band seemed a bit more relaxed and ready to cut loose. They all took the stage armed with kazoos for “D Bag Rag,” and soon after broke out the now-pretty-rare “Left on Laura, Left on Lisa.” Oddly enough, they chose to repeat “True Sadness” on the second night; it was a different version, but still a bit odd to replay a tune on consecutive nights of a run. “Mama Tried” was a great cover choice, and “Kick Drum Heart” had the crowd rocking. They came out to an extremely strong two-song encore, starting with Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me.” It was capped off perfectly when the band brought Brandi Carlile out to sing on “Murder In The City,” a song she covered on her The Firewatcher’s Daughter album. With just Seth, Scott, and Brandi at one microphone, the harmonies were phenomenal, and it was the perfect end to the second day of music.
The Avetts had the night off on Saturday, ceding the stage to Band of Horses for the one theme night of the event – Full Moon Masquerade (there was a bright full moon that night). It seemed like some of the festival attendees chose to take the night off from the music, because the crowd size looked to be smaller than the previous two nights. But, a good portion of those that did attend did so with masks and other festive attire.
Band of Horses, however, crushed it. Unsurprisingly, they played a “festival” set – delivering mostly hits and better-known songs cherry-picked from their entire catalogue. From “Cigarettes, Wedding Bands” to “Is There A Ghost” to the “Ode to LRC” encore, it was an extremely fun set filled with all the songs that you wanted to hear. Those in attendance seemed to appreciate it, but by the end of the show there were probably only a few hundred there.
The one bummer of the set was the fact that Seth Avett didn’t come join them for “No One’s Gonna Love You,” a song he did a viral video of and the Avetts have covered a couple of times. Both Avett brothers watched the Band of Horses set from a third-floor stage view balcony, so they were definitely there. It seemed like the one sure-fire sit-in, but it didn’t materialize. In fact, over the course of the weekend, the only guest appearance was Carlile with the Avetts; the lack of sit-ins was one of the only bummers of the weekend.
The Avetts did, indeed, save the best for last. They kicked off the final Sunday night with Scott on piano for “Head Full of Doubt,” and the crowd predictably went bananas when they sang the line “And your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected.” They soon followed up with a ridiculously fun take on Harry Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line,” and the band was off and running. “Distraction #74” was great, and the entire crowd stood in stunned silence for “Feb. 20, 2000.” The band wrapped the set with a powerful “If It’s the Beaches” and an encore consisting of a raucous “Talk on Indolence” and “No Hard Feelings.” The Avetts took the crowd through the entire spectrum of emotion in one show, which is what good bands do.
It was a perfect way to end the weekend.
At most festivals, there’s a divergence of musical taste. More “general” music festivals may have bands like Snoop Dogg and Steve Miller on the bill – two vastly different fan bases. Even at more targeted festivals like Lockn, bands such as the Disco Biscuits and Yonder Mountain String Band attract a different kind of fan. The beauty of At The Beach, though, was that everyone was there for the same reason. Strangers seemed like long-time friends because conversation came so easily, mostly centered on the shows the night before. There was a commonality that was implied, and it created a pleasant, communal environment.
We walked down to the lobby after the last show, bags already packed, to find out what time our transportation left for the airport the following morning, and there was a certain sadness in the air. While many folk were staying a few extra days, extending their vacations, there were plenty like my wife and me, headed back home to children, work, and responsibility.
It kinda felt like the last night of summer camp, when your break from reality was over. When you had to go home. My wife and I discussed whether we’d go back, and with no hesitation we both said yes. Part of the draw this year was the fact that Isbell and Band of Horses were also on the bill, but we both agreed that next year, we’d pull the trigger no matter who was playing.
There’s just something special going on At the Beach, and I know that, no matter what, we want to be a part of it.