Holy Ghost Tent Revival gets religion

by Jordan Green

Half-Sewn Heart, an Asheboro band inspired in equal parts by Jeff Tweedy and Jimmy Page with a singer whose Americana spirit seems inhabited by the manic ghost of the Minutemen’s D. Boone, is finishing its set at Greene Street. Holy Ghost Tent Revival, a seven-piece rocking acoustic band made up of friends who met each other at Greensboro College, is waiting in the wings.

After Half-Sewn Heart strikes the last note, the band breaks down its equipment in unceremonious ritual. Moments later the players of Holy Ghost Tent Revival swarm over the stage like ants on a mound, carrying the odd implements of their enterprise – a tom, a mic stand, a song list.

Before the band has a chance to tune up, a handful of women on the floor are already stomping their heels in anticipation of the rhythmic riot that is the Holy Ghost Tent Revival experience. The fans, predominately modestly dressed but high-spirited coeds, have poured onto the floor from perches behind the rope in the club’s VIP section.

The sound check neatly segues into the show itself, with the two banjoist/guitarist/vocalists, Stephen Murray and Matt Martin, testing their microphones by yelling like banshees, and multi-instrumentalist Richard Sprecker running through a bom bom bom bom bom series of bass vocalizations. Their first number is a wordless a cappella collaboration that builds off a beautiful, harmonic mesh and explodes in exuberant outbursts.

Murray sings the first proper song, “Walkin’ Over My Grave.” The music immediately conjures 19th century riverboat eclecticism, Stephen Foster-style songcraft, and latter-day ragtime and Dixieland hilarity. Murray takes on the persona of a foppish dissipate, tossing off such lines as, “I love a hometown parade.” Murray and bass player Patrick Leslie trade harmonic shouts. Soon the horn section, consisting of Sprecker, trombonist Hank Widmer and trumpeter Josh Lovings, joins in with a mournful squall rife with threatened chaos.

The next song, “Getting Over Your Love,” only intensifies the proposition, featuring throttling acoustic rhythm guitar, a rolling drumbeat courtesy of Ross Montsinger and a horn rave-up.

Holy Ghost Tent Revival has experienced a meteoric rise since they first came together last August. While they fit in no particular music scene they’ve developed a loyal following that reliably shows up to their gigs at bars like the Clubhouse and Greene Street. Their energy bears the stamp of the popular Avett Brothers, a North Carolina acoustic band that has perfected a manic synthesis of the sounds of Bill Monroe, the Beatles and the Sex Pistols, but the Holy Ghost Tent Revival expands the Avett’s power-trio formula into a well-oiled big band.

“When it was just a few of us we didn’t have an idea of being a band,” Murray says. “We started playing around, and people said, ‘When are you playing next?’ One thing people said is, ‘You need a drummer.’ Just to see people dancing to our music is better than anything.”

The band had no particular game plan, its various members say. Inspired by “Dog Problems,” a song by the Format, Murray and Martin decided to start writing songs with the banjo in mind. Their first songwriting attempt, “Getting Over Your Love,” bore those fruits, emerging with a limber, jaunty pacing that created a natural ragtime feel.

“Josh and Hank were living across the hall from us, playing trombone and trumpet,” Murray says. “We were like, ‘This is awesome. This is just the sound we’re looking for.'”

Thematically, the Holy Ghost Tent Revival has already fleshed out an identity that many bands never attain in their careers. The mission statement posted on their MySpace site is difficult to improve upon for succinctness:

“They sing about love lost, uncertainty and regret over stupid passion, but this is not all they know. Their music comes also from a place that knows that friendship and laughter are sometimes the only salvation one needs. Promising nothing but to sing simply about the stirring things in life, about dreams and aspirations, and the moments that break our hearts, they faithfully commit to leave their all on the stage for you; not a one will go until their souls are spent. These young men guarantee honesty in the hopes that you may think of their words when joys and troubles involve themselves in your life.”

Just as the band openly credits the Avett Brothers as a musical influence, so too do they nod to that band’s lyricism. It’s an anti-indie rock ethos, if you will.

“We definitely get a lot of inspiration from the Avett Brothers, trying to write truthful lyrics,” Martin says. “When you’ve got people like the Avett Brothers to look up to, laying your heart out doesn’t seem as scary.”

By the last song, “Hammer Fell,” audience and band alike are entranced. There’s a classic funk-soul break where the bass pops, the drummer changes time and the horns bray. It could be the Meters in New Orleans in the early ’70s, or the Specials in London a decade later. Or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones as still another iteration of the R&B-ska enterprise. Any of the great rhythmic horn bands that sing with their hearts on their sleeves.

Holy Ghost Tent Revival would like you to think of it as the sound of North Carolina.

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