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Avett Brothers, former pawn shop regulars, sell out Pier Six Pavilion

When they started touring a decade ago, North Carolina folk band the Avett Brothers nickel-and-dimed their way through 22 cities.

Traveling in a four-door pickup truck, they didn't play fancy venues; mostly just Irish pubs and sports bars.

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But since getting signed to music mogul Rick Rubin's label in 2008, the band has upgraded to better digs. In 2009, they opened for Dave Matthews, and earlier this year, for John Mayer.

On their own headlining tour, they've been selling out 1,000-seat theaters like Boston's House of Blues and Tennessee's Rylan Auditorium. Saturday, they'll play a sold-out show at Pier Six Pavilion.

Bassist Bob Crawford said they didn't start out expecting to play arenas. "We never thought about making it big, or what big was," he said. "We've been doing the same thing for ten years. It's been a slow ride for us."

Before their first tour in 2001, Crawford and the namesake brothers, Scott and Seth, were just a bunch of well-read musicians peddling their own brand of sped-up Americana.

Scott was in graduate school, and Crawford was about to enter a graduate program himself. But Crawford convinced the then-three piece band to go on the road.

He sent out press kits in unassuming manila envelopes with just an 8-song album and a letter saying, "We're the Avett Brothers, and here's what we've done." Though he managed to book 22 venues, the tour was a gamble. For one, the gigs didn't pay a lot of money.

"There were times of struggle in the early years," Crawford said. "I had to go to the pawn shop a couple of times." There was the time he hocked a mandolin, then an air conditioner. 

To save money, they ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches on the road and limited themselves to $5 for dinner.

If they didn't have family in the area, they camped out. That first tour made them just $4,000, which they split three ways, with a thousand going to the band's account.

Still, it gave them motivation. "That tour taught us it is possible," Crawford said. "It was a young man's dream to have pulled it off, but we did it with discipline."

Soon after, the Avett Brothers performed at the National Association of College Activities conference (where many schools book talent) and picked up dates at college cafeterias.

It paid dividends: Over the years, college audiences have been a constant support for the band. By 2005, they decided to quit their day jobs and school and focus entirely on touring.

Through the dirt-poor years, Crawford said the goal was only to play more venues to hone their sound. "When we look back on it, we did it because it's what we enjoyed doing," Crawford said.

It's only been since getting signed to Columbia that they've been able to support their families strictly from their music, Crawford said. When they nearly sold out the 8,000-seat Bojangles Coliseum, one of the biggest venues in their home state, Crawford saw it as a benchmark.

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"It was an intensely emotional performance because it was our first time performing at a venue that size," he said. "And because it was a homecoming for us."

The venue was enough of a big deal for them that they chose it as the recording site for their third live album, which was released earlier this month and that they're now touring with. At the show, they played fan favorites like "Murder in the City" and "Shame."

Yet, for a band well known for its rambunctious performances, the live album might not live up to the in-the-flesh experience. Crawford himself doesn't know how the album will be received.

He said fans will be reminded of their concert experiences, and he started to say that people who've never heard of the band would get a sample of their brand.

But then he stopped himself.

"I don't know if it's going to be accurate," he said. "The beauty of that show was the pure adrenaline. I wonder how it's going to translate."

Photo: Handout/Baltimore Sun

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