Eclectic soul-rock outfit returns to the Triad
A tent revival is supposed to be boisterous. It’s not a quiet, introspective, monastic situation. It’s rowdy. It’s about embracing the spirit and bringing it to the people, maybe jump-starting an electrifying conversion experience. So, the eclectic and frequently ecstatic North Carolina band Holy Ghost Tent Revival stay true to their name by bringing a jolting participatory energy and group fervor to their live shows.
The band was started in Greensboro in 2007 when the founding members were acting students in college. The band has since relocated to the mountains in the western part of the state, with Asheville serving as a central spot for practice. Holy Ghost Tent Revival play two area shows this month, one at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro on July 14 with Josh King and Them, and another at Muddy Creek Music Hall in the Bethania section of Winston-Salem on July 30.
I spoke with guitarist Matt Martin by phone from his home in Abingdon, Virginia (in the southwest corner of the state), about the group’s evolution over the years– their attention to stagecraft and work on their new record, which is already recorded and set for release in 2018.
Holy Ghost Tent Revival has always been a shape-shifting outfit, with multi-instrumentalists changing hats, different singers stepping to center stage at different points. You’ll hear a clarinet, trumpet, trombone, distorted guitars, hints of New Orleans-style drumming, careful harmonies, honky-tonk vamps, flashes of hot jazz, juke joint piano and psychedelic touches all mixed together. The end result evokes the Band and contemporary keepers of the flame like Dr. Dog.
Their earlier work often featured banjo that linked the group to American traditions of acoustic music, but the band has always been about more than just roots. They’re a soul-rock band and they don’t use the banjo in their live shows anymore.
“Our sound doesn’t really harken back to that time at all anymore,” Martin said. “It’s full of soul and rock and loud guitars — tastefully loud.” He qualifies that the band is “not the Sex Pistols.”
Their taste for patchwork pieces of music, rich with meter and tempo changes, two-step bits, dynamic shift, gospel accents and left-field transitions have been something the band has worked on over the years. They worked on this by tempering their sound and figuring out how to balance all of their diverse creative energies.
The band likes to cram a lot into a song, but they don’t want to make you dizzy or to overstuff the container.
Martin said the band tries to satisfy its own internal sense of what goes where, but they like to keep pushing in new directions.
“It’s like with every band,” Martin said. “You either stay the same and bore yourself I suppose or you just follow your heart.”
Holy Ghost Tent Revival’s last full length, 2014’s “Right State of Mind,” was made with the help of Dr. Dog producer Bill Moriarty in Philadelphia. Martin said that Moriarty helped the band zero in on an organic cohesion in their songs.
“Our music used to be rife with metric shifts and stylistic switch-ups,” Martin said. “When we listen back to old songs there are like three tempo changes with one song. We used to love that sort of thing. [Moriarty] listened to that kind of stuff and he was like, ‘This isn’t gonna work for me. We’ve got to have a through line.’ And in that way, it sort of taught us how to write music that didn’t have jumps and starts and hiccups.”
That doesn’t mean that Holy Ghost Tent Revival has turned into some modal, drone-groove outfit. They still like to dart and dash around within their songs. Take “Smoke Myself to Death” off of the 2016 Summer Jelly E.P. It’s a song that slides into surprising curlicues of retro soul-funk and Beatles-esque melodicism without giving a sense of musical whiplash.
With their background in the theater, Martin said there was always a sense of wanting to entertain a crowd. Over the years, that meant that the band has learned to include a few carefully chosen slower-paced moments for rest and contrast.
“When we were first starting out we were all-octane and fast, and full-speed-ahead, and somewhere along the way we were like ‘Yeah, we need to put more slow songs in there,’” Martin said. “We’re not Cannibal Corpse, but at the end of the day we want to rock out.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.