Jack Firneno, the Wire
You can lose parts of yourself out on the road, but you can find new ones as well.
That’s what the Holy Ghost Tent Revival has learned over the years. When the North Carolina-based six-piece rolls into Bucks County this week for a show at Triumph Brewery, they’ll be boasting a sound that’s much different from the hootenanny-driven folk music they focused on for years.
These days, the band is more influenced by Motown brass sections than pedal steel guitars. Armed with electric guitars and extra horns, that’s the sound on their latest album, Right State of Mind. Released last year and recorded in Philadelphia, their new approach evolved on the road somewhat by accident — literally.
Last year, guitarist and lead singer Stephen Murray accidentally cut off the tip of his finger on the road. For a band like Holy Ghost Tent Revival, which spends nearly all year touring and has done so for the last seven, the incident could have spelled disaster.
But rather than leave the band with one less instrument, he dusted off the trumpet, an instrument he played in school, and started stepping back to play alongside the band’s trombone player. But while the shift wasn’t expected, it also wasn’t an unfortunate one.
According to drummer Ross Montsinger, the band had already started moving in a new direction, influenced strongly by the old soul albums they’d communally been listening to on the road. “An artist puts out what he takes in,” he explained. “Touring around the country in a van with no headphones on, all listening to the same stuff, we started getting into bands that sounded like that.”
As a result, Murray decided to stick to the horn even after his hand had healed. The remaining two guitarists started playing electric guitars instead of acoustics.
“Switching the instrumentation gave us more control over the tones we were making,” Montsinger noted. “It gives us more colors to work with, and more control than we had as a sort of ragtime band.”
It’s a move that led to more mobility for the band, in more ways than one. As Murray began moving back and forth from the front of the stage to either sing or lock in with the trombone, the other members started swapping instruments for different songs.
Practically speaking, said Montsinger, “It’s more of a spectacle. Everybody is moving around the stage and doing more.”
But it also means different approaches to the music: “We lost a guy a few years ago and we’d been trying to figure out how to cover those sounds. But we can contribute more to the nature of each song this way. Now we have a bigger sound than when we had more people.”
Those changes culminated in Right State of Mind, recorded in a home studio in East Falls by Bill Moriarty. Northwest Philly may be a long way from the band’s home in Asheville, North Carolina, but Moriarty was the man behind the board for Dr. Dog, a group that partially inspired Holy Ghost Tent Revival’s stylistic shifts. And, it turned out that Moriarty and the band had some mutual friends.
“It was a sound we were exploring with our new songs, and when we realized we had a connection [to Moriarty], that was an idea we jumped right into,” said Montsinger.
And while Right State of Mind sounds “exactly how we wanted it to sound,” that’s also what they were looking for last year. When tape starts rolling again in early 2016, Holy Ghost will again be looking for something new.
Already, the band has nearly enough songs for another full-length release. It’ll be their fifth studio release, widening their already impressive recorded discography of nearly 50 songs over the past eight years.
As has become tradition, Holy Ghost will take a little break from the road around the holidays, then begin recording before touring again in the new year. The next album won’t signal as drastic a stylistic shift as their last — — Montsinger suggested that “Soul’d out will be the buzzword” for the next release — but will expand on what they’ve discovered.
What will change more, however, is their methodology: rather than record all in one place as they’ve done in the past, they’ll start off in one studio with drum tracks committed to old-fashioned magnetic tape. From there they’ll record digitally in other studios, including cozier home setups before — and during — their next tour.
“I think the variety is what we’re most interested in. We have three different songwriters who are really inspired to write,” said Montsinger. And, being on tour helps that process. “Out on the road, everything happens. We go through hardships together, we listen to new music together.”
And when those things happen, like losing a finger or getting interested in a new band, “There’s a good chance it’ll crop up later.”
Holy Ghost Tent Revival will play a free show at Triumph Brewery, 400 Union Square in New Hope, on Aug. 27 at 10 p.m. For information, visit www.holyghosttentrevival.com.