Holy Ghost expands the big tent as they graduate to the national stage

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by Jordan Green

Holy Ghost Tent Revival’s sound solidified while the band was on tour about five years ago.

As a matter of practice, the individual members of the band don’t listen to their own music on headphones while they’re on the road.

“We sit in this comfortable silence or listen to the same music,” said Stephen Murray, the band’s lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist. “A couple years ago, the Band became a huge part of what we listen to. We got on the same page as to what sound is important to us.”

As a group of music students at Greensboro College, Holy Ghost Tent Revival came out of the gate in 2007 with a high-energy sound that hearkened back to the 1920s or ’30s with heavy flourishes of ragtime. It was fun party music, although a bit of a conceit.

The Band’s scruffy rock and roll, played with the discipline of an R&B revue and just enough looseness to incorporate both old-timey textures and poppy Beatlesque melodies, provided a key to unlock the groove for Holy Ghost Tent Revival. Their second full-length album, 2012’s Sweat Like the Old Days, followed by Right State of Mind in 2014, both flowed out of that formula.

“That kind of opened the door to a lot of early ’60s R&B, the soul aspect of the music,” Murray said. “We always had been using horns, but we started focusing on horns as an R&B element like Allen Toussaint’s arrangements with the Band — rock and roll with horns.”

While Holy Ghost’s sound has matured, the band advanced professionally by relocating to Asheville, as of about 18 months ago. Working in a city with a more active music scene provides the band’s individual members with more opportunities to work with other musicians outside of Holy Ghost, Murray said.

During a recent homecoming concert at the Blind Tiger on Nov. 20, the band opened with “Walking Over My Grave,” a track from their 2008 debut album, So Long I Screamed. The original song is a coarsened dandy’s jaunty dismissal of a love gone awry, but Holy Ghost’s recent reworking gave it a fierce energy matched with organic warmth. The rhythm section of drummer Ross Montsinger and bassist Kevin Williams supplied a dynamic crunch, while guitarist Matt Martin’s thin, wild tonality proved him to be an able pupil of the Band’s Robbie Robertson. Trumpeter Charlie Humphrey and trombonist Hank Widmer augmented the band as a powerhouse horn section.

With or without his Rickenbacker guitar as rhythm accompaniment, Murray vacillated his vocals between weary observation and pleading pathos, declaiming in moments of emphasis and flailing dervish-like on his instrument during sonic epiphanies.

Dulci Ellenberger, a solo artist who performs with Holy Ghost Tent Revival as a backup vocalist, answered Murray with winsome harmonies. Ellenberger has frequently shared the stage with Holy Ghost over the past several months, and on Nov. 20 Murray announced that she was officially a member of the band. The band reciprocates by backing Ellenberger on her material.

Ellenberger’s vocals add a pleasing melodicism to the mix and raises their game to manifold professionalism. Performing three songs from her new solo album, I Can Feel It, Ellenberger’s voice carried a throaty ache and nostalgia that recalled ’60s reggae great Phyllis Dillon as much as Dolly Parton.

Ellenberger’s incorporation is only one aspect of the band stretching and redefining itself by flexing the strengths of all of its members.

For a couple as-yet unrecorded tunes, Williams relinquished his bass to Martin and sat down at a keyboard while taking the lead as a singer. His soulful vocals display the coiled electricity, if not the exact timbre and intonation of the late Levon Helm of the Band. Meanwhile, Murray traded his guitar for a trumpet, articulating tight expository melodies on a couple songs, and Martin took over lead vocals on the testimonial “Shadow Only Knows.” As show people, Holy Ghost Tent Revival give as charismatic a performance as any young band going, with Murray and Martin periodically jumping off the drum riser mid-stroke and Humphrey delivering an incendiary trumpet solo from atop an amp stack during one number.

The band will be rehearsing their new material and then going into La La Land Studio in Louisville, Ky. to record their next album for a couple days in January.

After eight years of solid roadwork and recording, Holy Ghost Tent Revival is potentially on the cusp of a breakthrough — a test certainly, though they prefer to see it as an opportunity. They recently signed with a national booking agent, New Frontier, which will give them exposure to larger audiences by placing them as a support act while leaving room for them to continue to headline their own shows.

“It feels like the moment you put in a lot of work and something finally goes your way,” Murray said. “Their connections are broader than anything we’ve had in the past. It’s fingers crossed. We have to catch fire in front of a larger audience. They have the ability to put us in front of that audience. But what we do with it is up to us.”

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