The Revivalists Will Save You
Coffee and a show with the hottest thing in New Orleans
In a time when music is possessed by commercialism and marketing, The Revivalists live apart from what our backward modern world thinks of as musicians.There is nothing sleek, polished or false about them. They are simple. They love good food. They enjoy the festival circuit. They exist as an unfettered assembly, bound to bring to life the fervor of old-time revivals; green fields stamped flat to tambourines jangled in gypsy celebration to a merciful God. They are no one but their own. There is not so much in the way of concrete goals except to play—eventually on the moon, but in the meantime—on-stage with that same old-time energy reserved for spirit-filled pews in dark, vaulted churches.
If they grow one day to the size of a legend and keep telling the story, we can all believe it really was The Divine that brought them together. They were fused largely by chance; a happenstance collaboration of life with the all-knowing spirit rising from the sodden ashes of a post-Katrina New Orleans, and a singer picked up off of the street from a few overheard melodies. Five years in, they are not apt to call it easy. But as one of them puts it, “If you weren’t cut out for this, you’d have figured it out long before now.”
Over the past five years The Revivalists have bushwhacked and beat their way across the musical jungle U.S.A., carving out sweet rests of solid support in Cincinnati and Hamilton, New York, Pensacola, Chicago, and their hometown New Orleans. When I met with them they were a week and a half into a month on the road. Just another day spent in the life of compulsive travelers.
“We’ve just gotten used to being always on the road.” —Ed
“All the time now, pretty much.” —Zach
Sitting down with The Revivalists is intimidating. Not because anything in their just-woken demeanor or still eager eyes would warn you off, but from sheer size. A cadre six members strong with an optional seventh, they are a force of nature themselves. Questions are answered by two members simultaneously if you’re lucky and four if you’re not. Sentences are finished more like a triple-vision pair of twins than an assortment of friends. It’s not a pig-headed energy or search for the spotlight that drives them all to speak but simply the desire for all to contribute, and the fact that they all have something to say.
The band talks of stories from the road.They have a reverence for Colorado that’s reserved for people relegated to the swampy oppression of the south, as they remember their last visit to the state.
We got our trailer parked in and then people helped us move a car. Cause we were like sitting on the street confused, like, what are we going to do? And people were like, “can we help—can we be of service to you?” And they helped us lift this little car that was blocking our trailer in its spot. —Ed
The way they tell it, the car was a Ford Focus. I promise them I’ll write it was a Hummer.
Singer David Shaw sits slouched on the couch, tapping idly but persistently at his iPhone as one friend after another slowly circles by to see what’s going on. Rob the sax player drops in after a nap and fills in the gaps in the group, adding stories of growing up in a traditional Jazz circuit and playing flute in high school concert band. It strikes me that there don’t seem to be any traditional roles here. There is no messiah; no holy leader, self-appointed or otherwise. They and their music are truly the outcome of a collaboration of equals, something that weaves itself into their performances and their songwriting.
“One of us comes in with a song, shows it to the band, and then we argue for like two weeks, and then it’s a good song” —Rob
And that’s what separates them from going too far into the looseness—what keeps them ever-bucking the stereotypical spaced-out stoner Jam Band label that might otherwise be earned by, well, getting played on the Jam station on XM just the day before the interview: they argue.
“We all trust each other to be very good musicians, Everybody has kind of like [a], do your thing, there’s not a lot of, like, ‘you play this’…” –Andrew
“No, but we do get up in each others’ grill about stuff. We want to make sure everybody’s sounding good.” —Zach
“We don’t really mind the jam-band label, but we’re not a jam band. We’re a band that jams,” David had said earlier, proving that they can wield a well-turned lyrical idea to their melodic ones. Time shows that they are more than just good musicians, that they are intelligent. Or maybe “savvy” is a better way to put it. When not talking about body-slamming members of the 1987 New York Mets, or whether “the body of Christ” is an appropriate answer to their favorite food, you can dig at the fact that they’ve found a way to be at peace with each other. Whether through intentionality or an innate understanding of how to survive on the road, they don’t spend all of their downtime together together on-tour—they split off and explore the cities, find what good bites they can, and occasionally just happen to run into each other. Essential items for each band member have to do with solace: noise cancelling headphones, iPod, Kindle. It’s the understanding of how this lumbering cross-country carnival works that’s going to keep it working for them.
A friend of theirs finds me at the bar while they set up, and presses the songs into my hand that they want recorded by the photographers. It’s scrawled on the back of a paper plate stained with pizza grease, folded kindly into a rectangle. Our photographers scramble to set up their equipment, lenses and tripods, and there’s no more time to wonder as the set begins.
With that in mind, I take my seat at the bar at Cervantes’ not sure what to expect. I sip a dusty IPA, and try not to listen to the lukewarm opening act while I wonder. I’ve done my homework, I sat and talked with them for (what my recorder says is) 37 minutes; I’ve read the reviews and I’ve done my listening. But the idea keeps coming back, that this is a different kind of act. Because what do you expect from a band that lacks schtick—one that doesn’t have a line of branding ready to spit in your face when you ask what they’re all about? What’s going to come to life when the humble congregation un-bows their heads from the dungeon of a green room and takes the stage?
Whatever it is, it happens fast. As the first notes of their set ring out, there is no doubt that something special is taking place. They launch into an opener that rolls right into the second song and David beats a tambourine against his hand frantically, bowed over in bounce of pure spirit and rhythm. In an age dominated by sounds unattainable on-stage, they immediately show themselves to be a gem. The sound is not just balanced, it is tight, and it is good. And in an instant it’s all there: collaboration, friendship, love for the art form–people who got into this to play, rather than just be heard. Before the first song even ends, The Revivalists have blown the opening act out of the water unequivocally. By the third song of the set they even upstage the Soul Rebel Brass Band as headliners, though one of the peak moments of the show does come when Dan is joined by the brass section from Soul Rebel, and they together drown the crowd with succinct rips of wailing trombones and screaming trumpets. Combined, brass and wood are exorcised of all their soulful demons right before our eyes. In your heart you’ll feel that everyone should make music this way, but deep down you know that the sad truth is that others can’t.
After their schedule of non-stop touring, there is no way this night can be a novelty for the band. But more than many acts I’ve seen they manage to light the place up bright as can be, as if it’s their first chance to break it big. The stage lights at Cervantes’ shift in hues along to the groove, and the crowd sways unapologetically to the groove. Shaw croons and crows, while Ed wails on pedal steel, grabbing the occasional solo lines in smooth slide tones between reeded blasts from the saxophone. Throughout the set, every artist makes their presence known to be essential. This would not sound this way without George on the bass, or Zach on guitar. And certainly nothing without Andrew tying it all together like a metronomic heartbeat. As they play with what can only be described as ecstatic glee, they roll forward into the night like a train with no intention of stopping.
Of course, they will have to eventually. After an hour or so, they leave the stage for the headliners to walk on, and after that soul-lifting experience I can’t stay for more than four songs. I pay my tab and wander out of the venue before they even reach the half-way point in their set. I understand what Soul Rebel is going for—authentic New Orleans jazz brought into the modern day—but after what I’ve just heard, nothing but the best is going to do.
Stepping outside, a few members burn cigarettes with fans and Zach pukes near the van from guzzling too much water to re-hydrate. Audience members spark up a piece on the street corner, and you can tell that the fans are thoroughly pleased to get to enjoy the band as much off-stage as they do on. And the band feels the same. No trace of weariness shows as I bid them farewell to enthusiastic handshakes and promises to sit down again next time they’re in town, and it strikes me that it’s hard to know whether the audience or the band had more fun that night. In no part of The Revivalists is there sadness over the doldrums of the road, there is no ounce of anything but excitement in their eyes. Perhaps it’s for good reason. As they wind their way through venues towards the West Coast, they are headed for what they all agree will be the highlight of their musical careers to-date; playing with Government Mule in California.
It takes me back to the moments before the show, when I asked them where they wanted the band to be five years from now, and they seemed hard-pressed to come up with an answer. Not because they don’t have aspirations or goals, but because this is exactly where they want to be. Doing what they do best. Playing music as they were born to do it, sweating out every ounce of talent before crowds regardless of their size, and walking their way into whatever the future brings. And for anyone at Cervantes’ that night, there is no doubt that will be something great.
Find The Revivalists at their website, and do not miss their next show in your area. You will kick yourself forever.