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Hall CD review: Holy Ghost Tent Revival

Get ready to dance as Greensboro indie band Holy Ghost Tent Revival strides rambunctiously onto the regional music scene with their first studio album, the auspicious “So Long I Screamed.”
“So long” might also be how the band’s fans would describe their wait for the promised CD, as HGTR experienced the travails of producing a full-length album without support of a label. But it has arrived in time to be a holiday gift and to make it into my list of favorite albums of 2008.
The title comes from a recurring phrase in the song “Hammer Fell,” the CD’s penultimate flourish following a series of musical gems. The theatre background of some of the band members really comes through in “Hammer Fell,” a five-minute melodrama with overture, characters, plot and tragedy.
HGTR isn’t genre-bending; they push genre off the cliff.
Listening to Holy Ghost Tent Revival is like tuning a radio dial from station to station, but without the static. They glide seamlessly from one style to another ó folk, ragtime, rock, bluegrass, funk, jazz, do-wop, soul, pop, you name it. And it works.
Their exploration of styles occurs in a coherent and exciting framework, not a gratuitous display or hodgepodge. Their exciting, polyglot arrangements make perfect musical sense. The band also possesses an incredible grasp and feel for historic styles that belies the members’ ages. This group of 20-somethings performs as if they’re seasoned music veterans. Their blend in startlingly precise vocal harmonies gives the impression they’ve been singing together forever, not just a few short years.
They readily acknowledge their debt to the past. The first sound you hear on the recording is that of phonograph needle hitting the shellac resin of a 78, and a long-ago sounding brass fanfare. Then the band seems to leap out of record grooves of the past and straight into your 21st century speakers.
Indeed, the project has an intriguing overall form. After they’ve been thrust into the present, there are occasional episodes on the album where the past seems to be beckoning to them to return from whence they came. And in the end, they succumb, fading into the mist of memory.
But while in our century, they sure have a good time, and so do we. Their frisky signature songs “Down the Street” and “Getting Over Your Love” regularly elicit exuberant swing dancing at the foot of the stage at their performances. The song “Needing You” takes off at such a frantic pace that it requires a cool-down for the second half of the song. “Loving Man” exudes a gritty sensuality. “Love Emergency” is just plain fun.
And so is “Phone Syndrome,” which hits the bluegrass nail on the head as squarely as the Monroes, Flatt and Scruggs. They take turns on the verses with a giddy enthusiasm akin to passing around a jug of moonshine.
Lead singer Stephen Murray delivers vocals with refined inflections and impressive ease that enamors his listeners. And he proves that the banjo can be a really sexy instrument.
Guitarist and singer Matt Martin, a calm man of few words when off stage, must be saving his energy for performance, when he’s transformed into a musical extrovert with enthusiastic vocal delivery.
Patrick Leslie anchors the band with bass lines that are both dependable and creative at the same time, and he knows how to make electric bass blend coherently with acoustic instruments. His mellow vocals take the lead from time to time as a foil to Murray’s straight tone, and blend beautifully in the band’s impressive vocal harmonies.
Hank Widmer’s trombone and euphonium add an extra punch to performances. With his amazing endurance he must have chops of steel. (Maybe like Samson the secret to his strength lies in those flowing locks of his.)
At the heart of the group, drummer Ross Montsinger’s lively and precise cadences keep this motley squad consistently hitting their marks.
The trumpet of former band member Josh Lovings adds fire to some songs and coolness to others.
Holy Ghost Tent Revival has a foot in the past, their heart in the audience-pleasing present, and an eye to the future, which looks bright for this band.
They aren’t concerned about genre, so why should we be? Like Duke Ellington said, “if it sounds good, it is good.”
And if it sounds great, then it must be Holy Ghost Tent Revival.
– – –
Do you want a CD? They aren’t available in stores yet, but you can order one at www.holyghosttentrevival.com.
Or better yet, buy a CD when you come to a live show. Their next performance is this Saturday, 9 p.m., at The Garage, 110 W. 7th St. in Winston-Salem. Also performing-Paleface. Cover charge is $7.
For more information call 336-777-1127.

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