Even if it hadn’t been my friend’s birthday, last Friday night at The Social in Orlando still would have vibrated with the spirit of celebration as delivered by Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour. Back in 2008, Hot Water Music front-man Ragan lead the Revival Tour on its maiden voyage. It had been conceived as a way for musicians to share the stage and bring their music to audiences in a stripped down, transparent way — no egos, no politics, no preening, just camaraderie and honest music.
Many of the musicians involved over the years often started in punk bands, so the tour offered them the chance to pull out their acoustic instruments and honor the country and folk roots of their forefathers, whether by playing their own songs that might have been relegated to their more subdued side-projects, or by covering songs by Hank Sr., Johnny Cash, et. al. More general-store jamboree than punk show, the tour has managed to lure in a wider audience, and shows no sign of stopping. [Text by Shae, photo by Nicole.]
When I arrived at the Social, the place was packed and the music was already in full swing. On stage, Rocky Votolato, Jenny Owen Youngs and Matt Pryor strummed their guitars, Chuck trilled on a mandolin, Jon Gaunt bowed the fiddle and Joe Ginsberg plucked and slapped the upright bass. They played several songs as a group, with Rocky, Jenny, Chuck and Matt taking turns singing, before the men cleared out and Jenny took her turn solo.
With her coppery hair and heavy bangs, Jenny Owen Youngs reminded me of a less Silver Lake-hipster Jenny Lewis but when she sang, her warm, throaty voice recalled Julie Doiron. She played singer-songwriter fare this side of rocking and carried her songs with ambitious, captivating vocal melodies. Establishing herself early on as the evening’s cheerleader, Jenny buoyantly lauded her stage-mates between songs and offered constant encouragement and applause. Before diving into a cover of “Ring of Fire,” she and bassist Ginsberg made a Venn diagram out of their arms, with one circle being “country music,” the other being “awesome.” They overlapped their arms, creating a single circle. “This represents this song,” Jenny explained with a laugh. Completely country and completely awesome.
Rocky Votolato played next. I own and enjoy his album, Makers. The songs are folky and delicious, so his performance was my most anticipated. I’m not sure if his songs don’t translate well to a solo setting, if he was having an off-night or if it was just his choice to pepper his set with more mellow songs that blended into each other and created a lull in the celebratory atmosphere, but frankly, I was underwhelmed. With a voice that can only be described as pretty, Rocky shone when he joined the other performers as a backing vocalist, but on his own, he lacked the grit and power of those around him, so he couldn’t compare.
Matt Pryor followed. Full disclosure: I had no idea who he was, even after he mentioned the names of his bands. (In case there’s anyone out there as oblivious as I, Matt’s previous band, the Get Up Kids, were an influential emo act from the late 90s to early 2000s. His current band is the New Amsterdams.) After adjusting a too-loud microphone, Matt delivered a commendable set highlighting his full-bodied vocals. Between songs, he regaled us with stories from the show the night before, including one where an inebriated woman offered up too much information about her new boyfriend.
The Social erupted as the mop-topped Chuck Ragan took his turn alone on stage. Ragan has that undeniably strong, whiskey-and-sandpaper voice that fills a room no matter the size, and his songs mix the anthemic with the poignant. This, I think, is the secret to his success and the reason I’ve heard people assert that “Chuck Ragan is God.” His voice is larger-than-life, unquestionably masculine, yet he as a performer lacks any sort of machismo. As my boyfriend explained to me, Ragan, through his music, shows emotion without appearing weak. He is strong but by wearing his heart on his sleeve, he offers a form of catharsis many people seem to need and respect. Deified or not, anything that can break through our era’s digital numbness and allow people to experience real emotion—be it joy or sadness, love or heartbreak, or all of these wrapped up into a single song—is a good thing. For that, I salute Ragan.
The rest of the performers joined Ragan back on stage, along with a guest appearance by Orlando’s own bearded folk hero, Bartender Brian. After Brian’s song, he cited Ragan’s earlier Revival Tours as inspiration. I’m sure there were many other people in the audience that night who would agree.