When do you know that your band is really making it? When strangers at the airport start pointing you out? When half the radio stations in the country seem to be booking you for acoustic sets? When you only get a couple weeks off from endless touring to get married or have kids? When a song you recorded three years ago seems to be playing on the sound system whenever you go out in public? When you’re able to compare the backstage areas at the Jimmy Kimmel, Ellen DeGeneres and Conan O’Brien shows? Put all the above together and you get a sense of life for the Revivalists over the past few months.
“It’s a whirlwind right now but that’s good—we are going to ride this wave for as long as we can,” frontman David Shaw said during a brief layoff in New Orleans during October. “You go 90 miles an hour and then screech, put on the brakes for 3 days. It takes me that long to acclimate to getting up, having some breakfast, going to the gym—then it’s back to 90 mph again. I used to go to the grocery store and shop, now I go to the store and take a few pictures. Which is cool, but it’s different, and I’m super grateful for the fans. I haven’t hit jaded rock star status yet.”
“It has been a little surreal,” saxophonist Rob Ingraham says. “I think of it as the beard effect—like when you grow a beard and don’t realize it’s gotten so long until you see yourself in the mirror. I never felt we’ve had some big explosion; it’s always been a gradual thing. Sometimes I just feel like yeah, we go to work every day. Then we’ll be in the customer service line at the Toronto airport and someone will say, ‘Hey, you guys are the Revivalists, the band with that song on the radio.’ It’s probably stranger for Dave, being the one that gets all the attention. I get to be the same dorky guy I’ve always been.”
Adds bassist George Gekas, “I’ve had people I haven’t spoken to in years tell me they’ve heard the song in this or that place. I’ve had friends literally say they’ve heard it in four or five places in a day—at the grocery store or at the gym. I heard it myself when I was meeting some friends for happy hour at Superior Seafood, and the song comes on. So it’s interesting that we’re part of the pulse, part of what people want to hear. I don’t want to say that it’s taken us by surprise, because this is exactly what we’ve been working for.”
That song is “Wish I Knew You,” from the band’s third album Men Amongst Mountains. In some ways it’s a definitive Revivalists song—not funky or jammy like some of theirs, but a testament to the redeeming power of a strong relationship (whether that relationship is with friends, family, a lover or God is left up to the listener, but Shaw was thinking about his girlfriend when he wrote it). The song was awarded a gold single in September—and in this day and age, that means a half-million in combined physical sales and downloads—and though it was already a three-year-old song when it hit, it shows no signs of settling down. As for local audiences, they were already on board: Last January the Revivalists swept the OffBeat Best of the Beat Awards, winning Song of the Year and Best Music Video for “Wish I Knew You” as well as Songwriter of the Year for Dave Shaw, and Artist of the Year. It’s the first time in a long while that a New Orleans rock band has pulled off a nationwide hit single: You’d have to go back to the ’90s for Better Than Ezra’s “Good” and Cowboy Mouth’s “Jenny Says.” Both those bands are still going strong two decades afterward, and the Revivalists have every intention of doing the same.
If that means they’ll be closing sets with “Wish I Knew You” for decades to come, no problem. “Hopefully we’ll record some more songs by then,” deadpans keyboardist/trumpet player Michael Girardot. “But this definitely puts you in a different playing field. Someone who has no connection to you, to New Orleans or to your type of music may hear your song in their car. If your online presence is good enough, they may want to buy a ticket. And if you play good enough at the show, they may become a fan. You can’t escape our song right now, and that gives us a chance to acquire some new fans and to introduce them to New Orleans music.”
That’s also been the song they’ve played on all three of their TV appearances. “The interesting part for us has been seeing how each of them runs their show,” drummer Andrew Campanelli says. “Ellen is from New Orleans and she’s always just herself, while Conan will be in his office all day writing jokes. In those experiences it really feels like we go out and play the song in a TV [studio] set. The audiences have a different feel, it’s not the same as when we’re at a show, they’re feeding off us and we’re feeding off them. We’ve always said that we try to play the same if it’s 10 or 10,000 people. But it can feel pretty stale in a TV studio, I’m not going to lie about that.”
Anyone who wanders into a Revivalists show will learn in a hurry that there’s more to them than the single. One of my live memories of the band comes from Jazz Fest four years ago when they hit the Gentilly Stage at full throttle, Shaw working the crowd, leading singalongs from the get-go, and generally handling their day-opening 11:30 a.m. slot as if was a headline gig.
More recently I caught a radio-station sponsored show in Boston over the summer and as expected, the regular set closed with a long workout on the hit (“The song’s three-and-a-half minutes long, and it takes us nine minutes to play it now,” steel guitarist Ed Williams notes). But before that the Northeastern crowd got a lot of New Orleans essence, with the Meters-style grooves on “Keep Going” and “All in the Family,” and with the band shifting the instrumental voices from guitar-heavy to brass band and back (the live sound transforms every time Girardot leaves the keyboard to take up trumpet, or when Williams and Zack Feinberg engage in a steel/guitar duet). And they managed to do something meaningful with a cover-song encore: This particular show happened a few days after the Charlottesville disaster, and Shaw announced that the next song seemed appropriate. They slammed from there into the Joe Cocker version of “With a Little Help from My Friends”—not just a showcase for Shaw’s mighty pipes, but a heartfelt, healing-tonic moment.
To invoke the title of a long-forgotten Black Oak Arkansas album, the Revivalists are a textbook example of 10-year overnight success: They would in fact be celebrating their 10th anniversary this season if they had the time to think about it. And nothing about the Revivalists’ recent breakthrough has been an accident—including Shaw’s not hogging the spotlight, making sure that all seven members take part in promotions and interviews. “It’s always been about the long haul,” says Campanelli. “It never occurred to us to put this kind of effort into something that wasn’t. In the beginning, much to Dave’s credit, he heard all of our songs and said ‘Let’s all be equally in the band.’ That’s one thing that’s sustained us through the various bumps in the road, making sure that we were equal and that someone wasn’t going to be saying ‘Okay guys, I’m out.’”
Even the seemingly sudden success of “Wish I Knew You” has been a concerted effort since the album’s release in July 2015. And if anything sums up what the Revivalists are all about, it would be that combination of strong emotional commitment and equally strong work ethic. For Shaw it began life as a personal song. “People have told me it’s them and their best friend’s song, or that it’s them and their dad’s song,” he says. “But when I wrote it, it was just me wanting to have more time with my girlfriend. I honestly don’t care if people think the songs about me or about somebody else, I don’t mind a little mystery. But if I start writing some fiction, I feel like that could hurt the honesty of the art.” Guitarist Feinberg ventures that the song reminds him lyrically of the Faces classic “Ooh La La”—both are about wishing you knew then what you know now.
It’s not the only song on Men Amongst Mountains that evoked a personal turning point: If there’s a theme running through the songwriting, it’s about finding inspiration to carry you through hard times. “It feels like about five years of our life because that’s what it is, a snapshot of those years,” Shaw says. “I hear it now and I can say, ‘Yep, that’s a pretty honest thought on that relationship.’ Or ‘Man, I sure was feeling pretty defeated that day.’ Some of it was written to psych ourselves up—‘Keep Going’ happened after we’d just come back from one of our longest tours ever—grinding it out in the van, doubling up in hotel rooms. There’s a lot of fun involved but damn, it gets tough.” As one of the three bandmembers (with Shaw and Campanelli) who writes most of the lyrics, Feinberg says that the uplifting mood is no accident. “We can bare it all sometimes, in terms of whatever pain we’re feeling. But I think the ultimate point in a lot of our music is that you’re worth it, life is beautiful and you’ve got to stay with it. A song like ‘Keep Going’ is really what we’re all about.”
The work ethic kicked back in once the album was released. After some grassroots success with City of Sound, they had a new deal with the Universal-distributed label Wind-Up, home of Creed and Evanescence. So the wheels were in place to push the third album quite a bit further.
“To give a peek behind the curtain, this is where the sausage-making metaphor comes in,” guitarist Feinberg offers. “The first single [‘Keep Going’] had a little bit of impact, but it didn’t really do much. For ‘Wish I Knew You’ the whole game plan was really tight. Basically, there are different radio formats. We went to number one on AAA, which is more of a tastemakers-type format. Then we crossed over to the alternative format, which used to be the grunge-type alternative to whatever the mainstream stations were playing. Then we crossed over to hot AC, which is basically pop, and made the top 15 on that. The way that’s done is that the record label and management company have radio specialists with relationships in place, they call programmers throughout the country to push for more spins and more adds. They look at indicators like Shazam to see how well their audience responds to the spins, and our song tested really well—in fact a lot of our Shazam response has been on random Greek islands, and Lord knows who’s listening to it there. What it comes down to is that people are responding to the heart of the song, the lyrics and the vibe somehow have connected.”
The Revivalists’ story is also about New Orleans as a melting pot: Though the band was born and nurtured in town, and polished its chops through early tours with Rebirth Brass Band, all seven members are transplants. And each in his way was chasing the dream of being in a New Orleans band: Most of the members can recall a moment of hearing some quintessential local music and feeling the spirit calling. For Campanelli it happened while working in a Virginia music venue where the Meters would get played in the kitchen; they led him to check out Dumpstaphunk and Papa Grows Funk when they came to play. Feinberg, from upstate New York, had a music teacher who turned him on to the Meters and Galactic. Ingraham grew up in Tulsa, Gekas went to a Jesuit high school in Connecticut. Three band members (Ingraham, Feinberg and Williams) went to Tulane, three others (Gekas, Girardot and Campanelli) to Loyola.
Most of them entered college in 2005, which put them in town within weeks, or even days, of Katrina. “I moved down here two days before it,” Campanelli says. “It was the beginning of the first college year for me, George and Zack. And we saw how the music of the city was a large part of what gave people hope and a sense of focus—how they could go out and show the rest of the world that there was this beautiful culture here that we’d almost lost. Seeing the way the community built around that—not to say that we were reviving anything single-handedly, but I know that was one of the things that convinced Zack that the Revivalists would be a good name for a band.” Adds Shaw, “I don’t want to say that Katrina had the same effect on us as it did on people whose whole lives got destroyed. It affected us in terms of making us try our best to bring a little joy to people.”
Shaw was the last to arrive in town, taking a gas-company construction job in 2007. A chance meeting with Feinberg led them to strike up a musical friendship, and the first lineup of the Revivalists—with Campanelli and early bassist Mike Brun—played its first show at Checkpoint Charlie later that year. “Let’s see, we played ‘Concrete’ and ‘Common Cents’ [both released on their debut EP the following year] and ‘Appreciate Me II’ [on their first full-length, Vital Signs],” says Shaw, nothing that Feinberg’s dad videotaped the night for posterity. “We still kind of sucked, but there were glimmers of hope in there.”
It took a few steps to get the band more into fighting shape. A key one was the expansion of the lineup, with the horns and pedal steel increasing the sonic possibilities. “It wasn’t like they even needed a steel player, it was more like ‘Hey, I know this guy and he’s talented and I enjoy his company’—that’s how a lot of the band came together,” says Williams, whose roots as a steel player are less in country and more in the sacred-steel tradition popularized by Robert Randolph. “My role in the band is to play steel in a vocal-y way. If it’s a country-ish song, I can do soft parts in the background, but on a song like ‘Criminal’ or ‘Catching Fireflies’ (both from the sophomore album City of Sound) I can rip a good solo and do the kind of slide guitar that’s been in classic rock for 40 years. We have different weapons we can use on different songs, if it calls for sadness or anger or whatever emotion, we have all these options.”
The horn section likewise works to keep things flexible. “There are a lot of different ways you can use horns in a rock band,” says Girardot—who came in with the longest resume, having played keys in Fay Wray and Rotary Downs. “You can do big thick pads to make a sound fuller. You can use them as a melodic instrument to play catchy riffs in bridges. You can accent a vocal line or do a call and response, and of course you can solo. We like to have the widest choice of sounds we can get, so we can think of what sounds best on a particular song.”
To some extent the Revivalists already had their watershed year in 2012. That was the year they got a booking agent—who hooked up with them after a show at Alabama’s Hangout Music Festival, another morning set played at full throttle. It was the year of City of Sound, their first with Galactic’s Ben Ellman producing (he returned for Men Amongst Mountains). And it was the year of a Jazz Fest–week show at the Howlin’ Wolf that Feinberg remembers as one of their key ones. “That was one of those community moments where I felt we were really starting to be embraced. We had special guests the whole night; I remember Roosevelt Collier was there. And I remember one guy I didn’t even know that took my guitar and started playing it with his teeth—I was thinking ‘Hold on there, dude.’”
2012 was also the year that Shaw toured as one of Galactic’s rotating lead singers, and during his stay he and Maggie Koerner co-wrote and sang on the studio version of that band’s carnival anthem, “Hey Na Na.” He recalls the Wanee show as one of the peaks—not least because a masseuse found a lump in his neck just beforehand. “It turned out just to be my anatomy, but I was a hypochondriac. So I went onstage feeling that it would be one of the last shows I would ever do, and threw everything I had into it. At that time the Revivalists were playing to maybe 200 people a night; sometimes it was seven people. With Galactic it was ‘Okay, now go out and front this band that is very much established.’ If anything made me the frontman I am today, that tour was it.”
All of which explains how the Revivalists are taking the current success in relative stride: As a 10-year-old band they’ve seen a lot of it before. The sentiments of “Keep Going” still apply as they head into a second decade, though most members of the band have stable home lives now: Girardot and Ingraham both got married this year, Gekas is set to follow suit, and Williams became a father in September. “A lot of big bands get to the point where they tour constantly for about six months,” Ingraham says. “We’re not there yet—we’re always heading out for two or three weeks at a time. There’s no real on or off, we’re always about to be back on the road and about to go back home.”
“Honestly, I don’t think we’d have been ready for this if we’d hit five years ago, and we wouldn’t have had the songs,” Shaw says. Currently they’ve got songs to spare: Washington Square Music/Concord may break a follow-up single from Men Amongst Mountains. Fine with them, since they’ve still got the long haul in mind. “I get to play music for the next 30 years,” Williams says. “I don’t think that gives me a lot of wiggle room for complaint.”