"The Mayan King" is the only song that could start Holy Ghost Revival's Sweat Like the Old Days, the Greensboro band's second LP. Released in 2012, the album represents a seismic shift for the regional favorite.
Renowned, energetic live shows full of tantrums of sweat, banjo and brass unite in a revved-up old-time sonic style, following the success of The Avett Brothers with brash Dixieland horns and raucous harmonies. Sweat doesn't forsake these hallmarks, but it pushes them to the background where they serve as aesthetic garnishes for swaggering rock songs led by electric guitar inspired by The Band and The Beatles and pursued by this small army of Carolinians.
It's a stark transition, one that could be quite jarring for fans of Holy Ghost's previous efforts, but "The Mayan King" ably bridges the band's past and present. The song begins with a slowly swaying wall of horns pulled straight from the outfit's early swing influences. When the electric guitar enters, it's strummed in a standard, folk-tune way and accompanied by the band's typically charming group vocals. Slowly, the guitars build and rival the brass for dominance as everything heads toward one all-consuming crescendo. It resounds with the overwhelming energy which has always been Holy Ghost's best asset, but places it in a new context.
"The comparisons were non-stop to The Avett Brothers as they got bigger," says Stephen Murray, who now plays guitar in addition to banjo. "That was fine, but it was a little confusing because I think it was just the image. We had the banjo and the acoustic guitar, but we also had five additional members and were playing ragtime music. It was cool to be a part of that movement for sure, but it needed to change. We weren't going to be fulfilled as a band that just sticks primarily to Dixieland and old-time-y music. There's only so many songs you can write until they start sounding the same, and there's only so many tricks you can do to keep that music fresh and interesting."
The band's stylistic shift was hastened by a change in personnel. Formed in 2007 while some of the members attended Greensboro College, Holy Ghost took shape organically. Songwriters Murray and Matt Martin were roommates and shared a suite with two other students, who became the outfit's first horn section. Taking cues from the brass-and-banjo-abetted Format, whom Murray had fallen for the summer before, the group found its sound and quickly became one of the hardest-touring acts in the state, playing about 300 dates a year between 2009 and 2011.
The pace was exhausting, and after some squabbles as to whether they should cut back, founding bassist Patrick Leslie forced the band's hand when he moved to Wisconsin to be with his fiancee. Keyboardist Kevin Williams switched to bass, filling the gap and forcing the band to re-tool. It was a timely spark for the new ideas Holy Ghost had been sitting on for a while.
"That really closed some doors and opened a whole slew of doors for us as far as where we could take our project," Murray says of Leslie's exit. "It definitely came as a time to really delve into the music we wanted to start writing. People kept on saying that they couldn't pigeonhole our genre, but I was starting to feel stuck in this ragtime, bluegrass kind of thing. When he left the band, that just kind of put us in the direction of where we wanted to go."
Sweat is the result of this re-evaluation, and it pushes in a host of new directions. The surging "John Addams Family" deploys potent rock 'n' roll riffs and crisp horn fills in a way not far removed from the E Street Band. "Alpha Dogs" wanders along meandering psychedelic guitar lines on its way to rousing, sing-along choruses. In both cases, the band attacks its new sounds with all the vigor and emotional immediacy that made its earlier folk permutations successful.
Energized by a new direction, the band is keen to keep things rolling. The members recently retreated to Asheville, where they demoed a selection of songs intended for a new album. And while they aren't planning the same number of dates, they're excited to get back on the road as well.
"We have six people that we need to take care of financially," Murray says. "We can't really be doing three weeks where two of the shows in the three weeks aren't worth the money. We want to move forward with this, but to do it in a smart way."