David Shaw of The Revivalists
Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images
The Revivalists Prep Jazz Fest Headlining Set: “It’s What the Good Stuff is Made Of”
Quint Davis would be the first to call out an interloper on the New Orleans music scene. As the producer of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, it's his duty to uphold the heritage of a city that doubles as a musical crucible.
That's why it's a huge honor that Davis decided to book the Revivalists to headline the fest's 50th anniversary — even they are, as he calls them, "Yankees."
"There's one common denominator with everyone that's on the festival," explains Davis. "And that's the level of musicianship. Can you play, and can you sing? Musically, the people in this band play at the highest level." On Friday, Apr. 26, the band will bring that energy to the headlining stage. The Subdudes and the Head and the Heart will open.
The Revivalists, who released their fourth album, Take Good Care, last November and currently have more than 300 million streams, were not born in New Orleans. The band's eight members hail from the Southwest, the Midwest and Washington, D.C. Unlike fellow co-headliners Santana, Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones, they are not household names. But any notion of an "overnight success" can be put to bed.
The band began gigging in 2007 — not at Jazz Fest, but a combination laundromat and bar called Checkpoint Charlie's. "It's a classy place," says Davis. "But if that's your first gig in New Orleans, there's no place to start lower than that."
Turns out they were hitting the ground running. Since their humble beginnings among the beer taps and washing machines, the Revivalists hit a pace that would lay most other acts flat — 150 shows a year.
"Think about that," says Davis with awe in his voice. "That's playing a gig every other day. For a year!"
Some of the members met jamming at Tipitina's, an uptown warehouse space that Davis calls the "soul" of the city. Instead of indulging in staid reverence to the Big Easy, theirs is a fresh, fusionary sound — pedal steel, tenor sax, hints of Prince, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Marley.
"So many people still think of New Orleans as trad-jazz, the old-school R&B," says Reid Wick, a representative from the Recording Academy's New Orleans chapter. "They're pushing the boundaries and the awareness that there's more than just the old-school music."
It fits a festival that has historically refused to be put in a box. New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival first sprang up in 1969 at the behest of jazz impresario George Wein. He desired a festival that leapt beyond the genre to include R&B, country, blues, zydeco and other indigenous forms.
To Davis's surprise, he was tapped to produce the first festival. "I had never booked anybody or produced anything," he notes with a chuckle. Still, he helped assemble a murderer's row — Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson, Fats Domino and others.
Whether in 1969 or 2019, Jazz Fest thrives on fearlessness and invention. Revivalists frontman David Shaw is over the moon to be headlining a stage that he considers "one and the same" with the Big Easy — and by his telling, he considers it a family affair.
"I have a very fond memory of playing at Jazz Fest," he states about the early years, in which the band played the supporting stage rather than the main. "It was my grandmother's 90th birthday, and she made it down from Ohio to New Orleans."
His wheelchair-bound grandmother sat sidestage, "with a big ol' smile on her face." In that moment, Shaw decided to pull out the first song he ever completed — "Soul Fight," from their 2012 album City of Sound.
Shaw wrote the tune at age 22, during a particularly aimless time in which he struggled on-and-off with drugs. And in the presence of his oldest, closest fan, he decided there was no better dedication. The Revivalists launched into the song, Shaw locking eyes with his grandmother.
"It was a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful moment," says Shaw. "I have tears welling up in my eyes just thinking about it. That's the vibe. It's what the good stuff is made of."
That "good stuff" separates the Revivalists from specious notions of citizenry; sometimes being a genuine New Orleans band has nothing to do with your birth certificate. "We don't mention that they were born in the North," says Davis as our call wraps up. There's a quiver of well-earned pride in his voice. "They're ours."