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Avett Brothers see fan base grow as sound evolves

The Avett Brothers played the Bing Crosby Theater the last time they came to Spokane in 2010, following their major-label debut, “I and Love and You.”

On Saturday, they stop by the INB Performing Arts Center in support of the new “Magpie and the Dandelion” – after tonight’s show at KeyArena in Seattle.

It’s an indication just how far the North Carolina folk-rockers have come since teaming up with uber-producer Rick Rubin for those two albums and last year’s “The Carpenter.”

Some longtime fans consider it a wrong turn, as the shouting and foot-stomping of the band’s early low-fi, banjo-driven days have yielded to a more polished, pop-centric sound, complete with drums and electric guitar.

But a broader audience has embraced the new direction. “Emotionalism,” the Avetts’ last pre-Rubin release in 2007, peaked at No. 134 on the Billboard Top 200. “I and Love and You” reached No. 16, while “The Carpenter” debuted at No. 4.

“Magpie and the Dandelion,” released Tuesday, grew out of the recording sessions for “The Carpenter” but has an identity of its own.

“We initially thought of this as part two … but we realize it’s its own thing,” Scott Avett, the shorter, banjo-playing brother, told in June. “It’s a very interesting occurrence we didn’t intend. It’s a nice surprise.”

While similarly ballad-oriented, “Magpie” has a bit more of the classic Avetts feel. Banjo features on four of its 11 songs – still slim pickings, but twice the total of “The Carpenter.” It begins with the countrified “Open Ended Life,” full of fiddle and mouth harp, contemplating an untethered, carefree existence.

Then the cares quickly start to mount, no surprise for an emotionally honest band that has always worn both its heart and its assorted hangups on its sleeve. This is, after all, the group that gave us songs like “Incomplete and Insecure” and “Head Full of Doubt” – though the rest of the latter title, “Road Full of Promise,” reflects an abiding hope for redemption.

The brutal introspection on “Magpie” comes to a head in “Skin and Bones,” with lines like “wandering lonely and scared/I live the tragedy I shared,” and “how long can we live in shame/and drop a lifelong curse on our own last name.”

That’s not necessarily a glimpse into the Avetts’ current psyche. “Skin and Bones,” as well as “Open Ended Life” and the bluesy “Never Been Alive,” have been performed live for years but never made it to a record until now.

The leadoff single “Another is Waiting,” a cautionary tale about the soul-sucking aspects of the entertainment business, is spun off of another old, unrecorded tune known as “Another Youngster/The Dream Appointed.” The band neatly mashed the two together in a recent appearance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

“Morning Song” references a beloved aunt’s losing battle against cancer, although her voice lives on as part of a closing chorus of family and friends. The self-deprecating “Vanity” – “I’ve got love pouring out of my veins/but it’s all vanity, it’s all vanity,” the taller, guitar-playing brother, Seth, near-screams – devolves into a noise-rock workout reminiscent of the previous album’s “Paul Newman vs. The Demons.”

While it could change with the album’s release, only a few of the new tunes have been appearing lately in the band’s live shows, which have always remained high-energy, banjo-heavy affairs.

Set lists have been similar to what the Avetts played in August at the Festival at Sandpoint, with a range of numbers from throughout their career – including ragged fan favorites like “Talk on Indolence” and “Colorshow” – and covers of such twangy traditionals as “Old Joe Clark.”

It’s enough to warm the heart of the most hard-core old-timer. Just don’t tell Rick Rubin.