The Lead: A look inside the Revival Tour
It’s five minutes to showtime on the Revival Tour and the stage is packed with instruments. A leather case filled with harmonicas occupies the empty space on top of an amp. A plastic crate overflows with tambourines. There are so many acoustic guitars, fiddles, banjos and violins that it looks like the folk section of a Guitar Center. The tour’s entire lineup of musicians walks single file down the narrow hallway to the stage, anchored by Hot Water Music frontman, Chuck Ragan. They step up, strap on and plug in. Ragan counts off and they all play the first song together.
“It’s very important to me that that’s how the show begins,” says Ragan, who conceived the idea for the tour. Before the show starts, “the audience is divided,” he explains. “People just come to see their favorite songwriter. But when we all take the stage together, right from the start, it immediately bonds everyone in the room.”
From there, the three-and-a-half hour show breaks down into solo sets, duets and various musical collaborations. There is no hierarchy to the lineup. Each show is distinct and unlike the one before it. It’s a format that’s been successful in breaking down many boundaries attached to typical punk shows, and one that catches many attendees off-guard. “The person who would normally headline a show might play first. And they may play their most popular song first,” says Ragan. “And it’s gonna happen at 8 p.m. and not 1:30 a.m.”
The Revival Tour has a vaudevillian quality to it as it rolls from town to town on one massive bus. On any given date, a few new musicians may be hopping onto the tour. On another, some will be departing. And on some days, Ragan has been known to spot a local busker performing on a bench outside the venue and ask him to join them onstage for that night’s show. Once in Boise, Idaho, a man on the street caught Ragan’s eye. “The bus pulled up to the venue and we stepped out,” he remembers. “And there was this fella sitting on a three wheel bike with a banjo and his dog.” One thing led to another and a few hours later, the man was on stage with the group at the Neurolux. The man, Tim Pennington, ended up playing on the 2012 Revival Tour compilation album.
The concept for the tour came about in 2008 when Ragan pitched the idea to Lucero frontman Ben Nichols during SXSW. “I sat him down and explained it to him and he just said, ‘Hell yeah,’” recalls Ragan, who organizes the tour with his wife, Jill. “And then it just happened.” Nichols ended up joining Ragan on the first tour later that year and returned to it in 2010.
Since its inception five years ago, the Revival Tour has come to mean different things to different people. For veterans like Ragan (who is known for his sweaty, growling vocals and heavy, distorted guitar-slinging in Hot Water Music), it’s a chance for fans to see a different side of him. “I guess maybe being a little older [than] the average showgoer in that type of scene —in the punk-rock scene—a lot of our fans have grown with us and have adapted to or accepted acoustic music a lot more than they did at a younger age.”
Like Ragan, Tim Barry is iconic in the world of punk, known primarily for his 20-year stretch as the frontman for Avail. Shortly before the Revival Tour began, Barry had begun releasing solo folk records when his band went on what appears to be a permanent hiatus. Diehard fans of Avail who caught Barry on the first Revival Tour expecting to hear acoustic versions of “South Bound 95” and “Simple Song” didn’t get them. What they did get, however, was a reintroduction to Barry as solo folk musician. “I think what the Revival Tour did for me was open up a whole new avenue of people who are interested in that kind of music,” says Barry. “I’ve been touring for 20 years and I’ve been on so many tours to so many places, I can’t even keep count anymore, and the Revival Tour is the best one I’ve ever been on.”
But the tour isn’t just an outlet for punks-turned-folk rockers. For some, like Brooklyn-based musician Jenny Owen Youngs, the tour is an opportunity for exposure to a new audience. Youngs hooked up with the Revival Tour in 2009 when her agent submitted her for it. Prior to that, she had been supporting indie artists like Regina Spektor, Aimee Mann and Amanda Palmer. But she formed bonds with her fellow Revival artists and has since toured with Tim Barry and Frank Turner. “As much as I love the indie songwriter world, there’s sometimes this shifty-eyed competitiveness. There’s a certain edge to it. But when I got on the Revival Tour for the first time, everyone was just about the music,” Youngs says. “I’ve been blessed with the ability to straddle these two worlds: The singer/songwriter indie world that I inhabit, and then being on the Revival Tour also allowed me to put one foot over the line into the punk world.” Youngs will join the Revival Tour for the first half of its spring dates this year. She speaks highly of the experience, and even higher of Ragan. Mention his name anywhere around her and her hand will immediately go over her heart and somewhere behind her shaggy bangs, there is a glimmer in her eye. “Chuck is just 100 percent good vibes,” she says. “Incredible attitude. Doing what he does for all the right reasons.”
The Revival Tour has also served as a springboard for some. Frank Turner was relatively unknown in the U.S. the first time he joined the tour in 2008, but he returned home to England with a newfound American audience. After only a few years and a couple more outings on the tour, Turner blew up, playing sold out shows at Wembley Arena and the Olympics Opening Ceremony. “The first Revival Tour run I did in 2008 was a massive thing for me,” says Turner. “I feel like it was my first proper introduction to the U.S. punk scene, and there are a lot of people who got to know my music from those shows.”
And it wasn’t just the crowd Turner impressed. “I remember very well the first time I heard his name was the day before he arrived to the tour in Asbury Park, New Jersey,” recalls Barry. “And I was like, ‘Who’s Frank Turner? Oh, it’s some British guy.’ I went into Asbury Lanes to watch him play, and I became scared to death to follow someone that great... There’s nothing more important than being scared shitless on stage.”
The lineup of the forthcoming Revival Tour, which starts this Friday, has shaped up to be the most diverse one yet, with everyone from Toh Kay of New Jersey-based ska band Streetlight Manifesto, to Matt Pryor, frontman of emo legends, the Get Up Kids. It’s a sign of how much the tour has evolved since its beginnings.
While organizing the forthcoming dates, Ragan has been reflecting on the tour’s progression and where it might go in the future. On the liner notes of the Revival Tour’s first compilation album in 2008, there’s a note from Ragan that reads, “Whether it’s the first of many to come, or the one and only for good, we’re more than happy to be apart [sic] of it.” Ragan recently re-read these words and says he feels the same today as the day he wrote it. “I would love to see this tour go on indefinitely, whether I’m on it or not,” he says. “If it does that for years to come, wonderful. But if this is the last one we’ll ever do, I can’t knock that either. We succeeded by playing that very first show.”
The Revival Tour kicks off this Friday in Corpus Christi, Texas. Visit therevivaltourtix.com for more information.