From Bonnaroo to The Ride Festival: These Are High Times for the Revivalists
This month the Revivalists are headed for Colorado mountain towns to escape the New Orleans heat, but lead singer David Shaw said the funky bunch with jam band tendencies already have reached the figurative high point of their career.
In what he described as a “defining year” for himself and six transplanted musicians who somehow came together in the Deep South, Shaw saw six years of hard work pay off in June 2013 with three sets at Bonnaroo.
“Each show kinda had its different glimmer to it,” Shaw said last week from a New Orleans gym, concerned that his cellphone would die well before completing the interview. “They were all special to me in a different way. The first show was completely packed, probably 100 feet outside the tent. It was probably one of the funnest shows absolutely that we’ve ever played in our lives, for sure.”
Affirmation on that level just provides the impetus to keep going, whether it’s getting a nice shout-out from David Fricke in Rolling Stone after the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival or ripping up the 600-capacity performance space of the Brooklyn Bowl, where Warren Haynes sat in on a cover of “Forget About Dre.”
“That’s a huge thing for any band that’s not on any label and (if) you’re still able to sell out a thousand miles away from home, you’ve gotta be doing something right,” Shaw surmised. “We don’t have that big machine behind us. We just have a few people that we’ve put into place and then we’re just playing our hearts out on the road.”
Now a popular fixture of the festival circuit, the Revivalists were originally scheduled to do double duty at The Ride in Telluride, Colorado on July 14 (their main stage show has since been shifted to 2:45 p.m. on July 13). They’ll essentially close the two-day event with a NightRide show at the 100-year-old Sheridan Opera House after headliners David Byrne and St. Vincent have taken their final bows in Town Park.
Two shows at altitude can be a challenge, even for this young and energetic outfit led by Shaw, the Hamilton, Ohio native who calls himself the “grandpa of the group” after turning 30 on June 6.
“It’s never the easiest thing to do, especially as you get older,” admitted Shaw, who can recall his Ohio band experiences in chronological order from the age of 13, starting with punk rocking SOS (Slaves of Society) and ending with the Summit Brothers in Columbus. “I used to play a lot of sports. I equate it to a basketball game or a soccer game. For an hour and a half, I’m running around, I’m singing my heart out. I’m constantly gasping for breath. It’s very physically intense, that’s for sure.”
Shaw, who attended Ohio State, already knew how to remain calm under heightened moments of pressure, though. Beating out more than 300 entries in 2007 at “Acoustic Idol,” a contest conducted by The Blitz radio station in Columbus, he not only won a Guild guitar and 30 hours in a recording studio but also the confidence to “go out and pursue my dream. That was worth more than anything.”
His girlfriend at the time recommended he make the move to New Orleans — “At that point, she could’ve said fuckin’ Zimbabwe,” a convinced Shaw concluded — but the decision ultimately required a huge leap of faith in himself. “I just didn’t have my thoughts on that part of the world really, at all. So I kind of figured it out.”
The Revivalists (left to right): Andrew Campanelli (drums), Rob Ingraham (sax), George Gekas (bass), David Shaw (vocals, guitar), Ed Williams (pedal steel), Zack Feinberg (guitar) and Michael Girardot (keys, trumpet).
Shaw and Co. (“They all moved down for college and I moved down for music”) have come a long way since he arrived on Birch Street in 2007. That’s when a musical meeting of the minds took place with Pleasantville, New York guitarist Zack Feinberg, who already had been jamming with drummer Andrew Campanelli at Tipitina’s Sunday Music Workshops.
Trying to set the record straight regarding the premature birth of the band, Shaw said it took awhile before the core that eventually became the Revivalists was formed. At one point, somebody thought a combination of their last names might work, but how would FeinShawCamp or CampanShawBerg look on an album or marquee?
Essentially, Feinberg didn’t have a band until he found his lead singer. That happened when he took a different bike route from his Green Street residence down a few blocks and saw Shaw singing and playing guitar on his porch. The song was “Purple Heart,” which the soulful singer with a style reminiscent of Dave Matthews wrote “three or four years” earlier (it later landed on 2010’s Vital Signs, their first full-length record).
“He came over and said, ‘Hey man, that sounds pretty good.’ I stopped and he was like, ‘Yo, finish the song. I wanna hear it,’ ” Shaw recalled.
Feinberg invited Shaw over to his place later that day. The Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Radiohead fan (who was first introduced to the Grateful Dead and Phish by older sisters Christy and Joy) was “force-fed” hundreds of other tunes ranging from Bill Withers to the Beatles on a flash disk from Feinberg.
Then the two eventually got their shot at Checkpoint Charlie’s after passing an open mic audition at that Esplanade Avenue dive bar/laundromat just around the corner from Frenchmen Street.
An early version of the band formed and was together for just over a week when they decided an official name was needed for their kickoff engagement at Tipitina’s.
Feinberg saw a 60 Minutes piece in October 2007 about Bruce Springsteen touring with the E Street Band for the first time in four years. In his report, correspondent Scott Pelley said, “Springsteen told us his concerts are part circus, dance party, political rally, and big tent revival.”
Done deal for the Revivalists.
Today, their members also include Ed Williams (pedal steel guitar), Rob Ingraham (saxophone), George Gekas (bass) and Michael Girardot (keys/trumpet). Their hot sauciness of sound is so identifiable with the Big Easy that they’re scheduled to appear during the final season of Treme, the HBO series depicting tortured souls in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Blending fact with fiction, the show has brought almost as much attention to the city’s thriving music scene as Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair.
With crossover acts such as Trombone Shorty, Galactic, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk and the Rebirth Brass Band embedded in a competitive market, Shaw said, “I hear it’s been very, very tough for bands to kinda break out of New Orleans. I don’t want to say it wasn’t tough for us because we really worked our ass off, but at the same time we always kinda … I don’t know, for whatever reason, people just seemed to embrace whatever we were doing naturally.”
The competition is more spirited than fierce (“not cutthroat at all,” Shaw said), and Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman even produced the Revivalists’ most recent album, 2012’s City of Sound. Yet Shaw, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the 10 songs, can’t deny that developing friendly rivalries is “a motivating factor. I’m a very competitive human being and think some of the guys in the band are as well. I think it’s just human nature to see something and want that and want to take it further.”
Not that they’re going to rely on major labels to give them a boost.
When asked if the band still is trying to get a record deal, Shaw said, “We don’t necessarily know if we want to jump in those waters. We’re not struggling financially and we’re still on the rise. It’s just kinda like if we were to sign a major deal … we’d be giving up a lot,” specifically ownership of their songs.
“And in today’s world, I feel like it’s kinda like the sinking of the Titanic,” he said of the music business. “They’re just grabbing for anything that they can possibly grab to keep their ship afloat.”
Shaw was so fond of a famous quote attributed to the late Hunter S. Thompson that, while nearly able to recite it from memory, he attempted to track it down online so he could relish repeating every word:
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long, plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
It took some research to discover those words weren’t actually what Thompson wrote while attacking television in his book Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s. But his original quote has been altered to strike a chord with many musicians and others who feel it applies to their world.
That includes Shaw, who had a good laugh, then was asked if that’s a point of view he shares about the industry that might ultimately control his destiny.
“You know, I can see there’s definitely some truth to that,” he offered. “Whether or not it’s as true and as diabolically terrible as he says it is, I don’t know. I’d be willing to bet that it is. I’d like to think it’s not, man, but those who see the power will be consumed by the power. And that’s just what happens a lot of times, I think.”
Meanwhile, the Revivalists are free to go their own way. They’ll have several chances to surpass Bonnaroo’s peak performance, with the 2013 ascension tour hitting Vail (July 9), Aspen’s Snowmass Village (July 11) and Crested Butte (July 12) before reaching new heights in the San Juan Mountains.
Shaw appreciates that the band’s booking agency, Madison House in Boulder, suits their geographical needs this time of year, and is looking forward to making their debut in Telluride, where the summer air is crisp but thin and the elevation is 8,750 feet.
The dry climate can be hazardous to a singer’s healthy throat, especially during the winter. Shaw said they almost canceled an appearance in Breckenridge last February because he could barely get out a word, much less a song. He’s always up to the task, though, saying, “We definitely get out of town during the summer. We go to Colorado and out west where it’s just no humidity and perfect weather.”
For a group based in a city where some areas are below sea level, the Revivalists certainly don’t mind getting high with a little help from their friends.
Publicity photo courtesy of the artist.