You won’t find The Firewater Tent Revival in the Library of Congress; as a group, that is. But collectively, everything they do surely sits on some pedestal, so to speak, in any folk music archive, anywhere. The band is a musical palette of elements at once diverse yet melded into a seamless package of Americana. Yes, the “A” word, for want of a better term. I was happy to catch the band live, and not just through streaming and a few videos, and my initial impression of Illinois-Jacquet-meets-Clifton-Chenier-meets-Yank-Rachell-meets-Bo-Carter was gone by the second song.
They’re group of longtime musicians who listen to one another play (rarer than you’d might think, thank you) and are on a subliminal mission to return the music to its original function as pure entertainment. Thus, Olde Tyme music, that is, Country (in the true sense) gets fused with the bouncy blasts of Cajun dance music with gems culled from the British Invasion; I could rename the band The Firewater Tent Consensus. It’s their way of doing things and if the feel doesn’t happen on the spot, the number gets tossed. Off the bat, I selected their “Firewatered” cover of the Nina Simone/The Animals tune “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” as an interview source point.
Here, the well-worn organ motif is played out in unison on banjo and mandolin, creating the effect of some obscure Balkan stringed hybrid. “Instead of worrying about how the song is supposed to be, we just worry about how the song comes out,” lead singer Dave Smith tells Folio Weekly Magazine, in his reedy Balfa Brothers voice that is the band’s centerpiece, “We do our thing and not somebody else’s thing. It’s a better re-interpretation of the song because it puts our flair on it.”
Are things always so mixed, or does a by-the-book bluegrass or Delta blues number appear on the set list? “To pigeonhole yourself is no fun, because you have nowhere to expand. We’ll play any genre, anything — because we’re in it for fun, not to prove any point,” says Smith. “Not to be any one thing because ‘good is good’ and ‘bad is bad.’ And genres don’t define what’s good.”
A notable addition to the band’s overall sound is the Africa-to-Appalachia picking that banjoist Nigel Ledford delivers. In a strange way, at times Ledford’s banjo provides the group’s keyboard voicing.
“It’s about entertaining. We don’t set out to do strictly anything,” says Ledford of the band’s open-ended approach to performance. “We have two or three bluegrass numbers, but we always wind up buttin’ those up against some other number in the same key. Because it’s [bluegrass] just one thing, it’s a lot of notes, and several chord changes laid out in a predictable way. And it’s great when we can take that and turn it into a cover that people can recognize, or, sometimes, one of our originals. And when the chorus comes around, and people recognize that we’re playing one of their favorite songs, it gets real cool and people really tune in. And it seems to hold the crowd.”
When I put forth my dry comment on how roots music at times gets cobwebbed into being a museum piece, Smith chimes in: “It’s hard to hate on somebody having a good time. We love to have a good time. Because if it’s not a good time, it’s time to go back home.”
How’s that for lyrically speaking?
Key to Firewater’s maintaining the heat onstage and firing up the crowd is in remembering the all-important rule of taking the stage: Have a good time. “If we’re not having fun on stage,” says bassist Jon Deering, “then the crowd isn’t having fun.”
The Firewater Tent Revival performs along with fellow Duval-pickers Cain’t Never Could on June 4 at North Florida Land Trust’s fifth annual Fish Fry. NFLT is an organization dedicated to preserving our area’s bountiful countryside in the face of daily encroachment.
The band jumped at the chance to bring their music to an event that supported such a noble, and local, cause. “We take pride in it because our music is indigenous to North Florida, the majority of us are from Mayport and closely connected to the mouth of the [St. Johns] River there with Fort George, Little Talbot and Big Talbot … great places,” says Smith, a fourth-generation Northeast Floridian with deep connections to this land and its people. “It’s been part of my life for 37 years. My grandparents arrived in Atlantic Beach in 1907 and my family has been there ever since.”