If all you know about the Revivalists is that they hail from New Orleans, scratch any preconceived notions about how they sound from your mind. Although they call their music "Folnk," it isn't the Meters' brand of funk, and they're more Red Hot Chili Peppers than Allen Toussaint. Their closest Nola musical peer may be Galactic, who helped broaden the Revivalists' audience by recruiting lead singer David Shaw to be their front man for a spring 2013 tour.
"I feel like I always had it in me, but that forged the steel," Shaw tells City Paper. "My band was playing to 300 or 400 people, max, at the time, and then every night I'm in front of 2,000 people all across the United States. I was cast out there like, 'You're going to burn or burn out,' so I've got to learn how to do this."
Shaw's role in that Galactic tour gave his band new street cred in New Orleans. "Before then, we were just kind of the little brother band," he recalls. "After that, we were seen on the same plane."
The Revivalists formed in 2007, just a few weeks after Shaw moved to town after graduating from Ohio State. Guitarist Zack Feinberg heard Shaw playing on his porch, struck up a conversation, and a collaboration was formed. But none of the band's seven members were born and raised in New Orleans. They're a true amalgam of influences, incubated by a melting pot city. Today, they're arguably the biggest band to have emerged from New Orleans in the post-Katrina years.
"It's pretty crazy to think about that," admits Shaw, who moved to New Orleans to lay gas line with the company that landed the repair contract after the hurricane. Long days working outside in the Louisiana heat gave way to long nights singing and playing in clubs on Decatur Street. "We were a bunch of pipe layers," Shaw laughs, recalling his coworker who had a bumper sticker that read, "Feet by Day, Inches by Night."
Fortunately for the band, Shaw's boss saw The Revivalists' potential and allowed him to take time off to tour.
"Not everybody is lucky enough to have a boss like that," says Shaw. "I don't even know if we could see as far as he could. We were just doing it because we loved it."
By 2012, following the release of their debut album, Vital Signs, and leading up to their breakout, City of Sound, the band's members had each left their day jobs and committed full time. On the heels of their third album, Men Amongst Mountains, Shaw says he's feeling like a successful big-time band for the first time, and not just among his peers in New Orleans.
"We're literally in the midst of the storm right now," says Shaw. "It took us 10 years to become an overnight success. Seriously, almost exactly 10 years to the month, and, 'Boom,' there you go."
Gone are the days when The Revivalists would head out for a 12-show tour to find four venues packed, four half-full, and four with crickets chirping. By 2015, the crickets had disappeared, and now it's sold-out crowds nearly every night.
"It's been a wild ride. It's been a gradual incline up until now, and now it's definitely more vertical as opposed to diagonally going up, so we're going to see how far we can take this," says Shaw.
For the lead singer, that means resisting the urge to party like a rock star, instead opting to rest his voice. To emote with his signature bellow from stage, he spends whole days not speaking while on tour, combined with focusing on healthy eating and plenty of sleep. The energy he suppresses during the day gets released in a rush at show time.
Shaw's approach to leading a band comes down to "a direct equation between me, the band, and the crowd. When everybody's hitting on all cylinders, you can feel a shift in energy. It doesn't happen every night, but when it does, it's amazing. It's something different. It's just like, 'Holy shit. Is this really happening right now?'"
Perhaps that palpable energy of a band and audience coming together, almost as peers, is where The Revivalists' New Orleans influence is greatest. Sure, they feature a saxophone, but they're seguing between hard rock and alt-country and funk. "At one point, we're playing a ballad, and then with the drop of a hat we're full balls to the wall," says Shaw. "We just let the song be the song."
Could Shovels & Rope have formed in a city other than Charleston? Sure, but they might sound slightly different, without the influences that our music scene bred into their songwriting. The same can be said of The Revivalists. They're a band of transplants, led by a singer from Ohio, shaped by the living history of New Orleans but in no way mimicking its past. Their existence, and national success, speaks to the ongoing revival of a city that's not just preserving but expanding the celebratory sounds that made it our nation's most important musical bastion.