"Somebody wrote that we're not a jam band, we're a band that jams," says Revivalists pedal-steel player Ed Williams. "We're more song-centric than your average jam band. We can go off on a jazz odyssey if we want to, but even more, we want to let the song breathe and be what it is."
The New Orleans septet appears on the brink of a commercial breakthrough as it tours in support of the band's second album, City of Sound. Producer Ben Ellman's warm, creamy textures envelop everything from frontman David Shaw's soulful, Vedder-esque vocals to the brassy Big Easy swing, bloozy percussion, and fleet-footed arrangements that flit about various styles like an alley cat making its rounds.
The hard-touring crew's on a hot streak of late, one that has included a string of choice festival gigs. It began with Jazz Fest, where the Revivalists shared the stage with Gov't Mule. Since then they've played the Hangout Music Fest, Bonnaroo, Governor's Ball, High Sierra, All Good, and Mountain Jam. They've also buried their third van and made the jump to a Sprinter-style vehicle. ("We've already put 6,000 miles on it," Williams reports.) In November, they'll be heading overseas for the first time to play shows in Bangalore, India, after an international promoter saw them play in Washington D.C.
"It's been a real roller coaster, especially the last six months to a year," he says. "The first Revivalists gig was at this tiny little place called Checkpoint Charlie's. The second gig was [New Orleans institution] Tipitina's. It jumped pretty quick, and once we started touring, we just found that with the amount of energy that we put out, if you put someone in front of us, we'll do something to impress them."
The band's members knew each other through a variety of shared musical projects that they decided to collapse into one combo six years ago. That's a big factor in their hard-to-pin-down sound. Everyone writes, blending elements of blues rock, psych jams, hard funk, jazzy swing, and songwriter pop with surprising deftness and assurance.
"It wasn't like, 'You know what this rock band needs? A pedal steel,'" says Williams. "It was like, 'Man, I got this friend, a really cool guy, and he's really good at his instrument.' That's really all you needed to do. So we're all really confident when we play because we're all good players and we're very competitive."
The Revivalists released a self-titled EP in 2008 and their debut full-length, Vital Signs, two years later. The local alt-weekly The Gambit declared them the area's Best Emerging Artist. With City of Sound they've stepped that up another level. It's a richer, fuller-bodied sound that feels more at ease and cohesive. They were much less green this time around, and Ellman's experience playing with and producing Galactic helped ensure they got the roomy, yet detailed sound they were seeking.
"Basically, we went in there [on Vital Signs] and just played our songs. We were learning how to record as a band," Williams says. "With City of Sound we wanted to see what it would be like to really put some production and some studio magic on it. We liked what Ben did with Trombone Shorty's records [2010's Backatown & 2011's For True] and Galactic's Ya-Kay-May record. We really just love those sounds and how he is able to make things pop."
The Revivalists had initially intended to record just three songs with Ellman, as they only had a five-day break in their busy touring schedule. They were going to pick from the 10 songs they'd written, but things went so well the first two days they went ahead and recorded all of them.
"We were like, screw it," Williams laughs. "So we literally recorded the full album in five days. Everybody had one shot at everything. It was pretty intense."
The album's 10 tracks wander widely from the redemptive slow-burn blues of "When I Die" through the gently sweeping electro-folk drift of "Pretty Photograph," the muscular psych-funk of "Criminal," and the country balladry of "Up in the Air." While definitely a groove-oriented band, the Revivalists don't let it get away from them during City of Sound. Songs open up enough to allow the horns to breathe, but they don't overwhelm the melody with windy arrangements. As players, the Revivalists typically underplay during their recordings. Even live, where they have more opportunity to stretch out, they're conscious of keeping the songs moving and sharing the spotlight.
"This isn't a band where there is one pony out there doing all the tricks," he says. "We like to spread the love as much as we can, just because everyone is so talented."
The Revivalists already have more than 35 songs ready to be recorded but are so busy touring it's hard to carve out time. The plan is to get into the studio early next year and have an album out by the beginning of the summer, though as with everything the Revivalists do, nothing's written in stone. It unfolds organically.