Rain drizzles down from above, glazing the table, and ominous gray clouds gather overhead. Thunder claps in the distance. Then it gets closer.
Buzzed Sunday fun-day patrons on Scruffy City’s rooftop bar emit chill burp-gasps at a shock of lightning tearing through the thunder clouds a little ways away, lighting up the night for a few seconds.
The Three Star Revival boys–who’ve caught lightning in a bottle with their own electric new EP Fade Away–seem totally unconcerned as they take a momentary break from a birthday party for guitarist Cam Moore’s girlfriend to talk with Blank.
“Some lightning could be cool,” lead singer Ben Gaines says, winking and smiling in a chill Southern drawl. He says he’s barely slept in days as the boys have traversed the South playing dates in Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta and more debuting the new material to some of their loudest and rowdiest crowds yet.
“So many people come and hang out,” Gaines says of their fan base, and this burgeoning Southeastern following, according to him, is simply “Knoxville graduating and moving to other cities and telling other people about us.”
Three Star Revival had early interest in their first EPs Set You Free (2014) and Change it Up (2016), which built local followings, receiving glowing coverage in local papers and blogs. Positive coverage in Knoxville Music Warehouse blog and a strong performance at Born and Raised Productions’ inaugural Sunset on Central festival in 2016 were big early moments for the band.
Leading up to the release of Fade Away this year, however, Three Star’s following has just blown up. In December, they headlined WUTK-FM’s jam-infused Funky Holiday Hang at the Mill and Mine and were able to open up for Perpetual Groove at the Concourse in Knoxville and the Basement East in Nashville back in early May.
The EP, co-produced by the band and Chris Utley at Benchmark Sound in Nashville, is a giant step forward sonically. There was a hard-driving, rump-shaking fun to the band always; Three Star surely brought the funk. Bassist Tyler Reddick and drummer Bo Kitzman have solid, dynamic chops and Moore is a top-notch soloist, channeling Memphis blues and Muscle Shoals soul and funk rock.
But this time around, the songwriting and production value on display showcase a certain professionalism and maturity. The emotions embodied in the build-ups of songs are more grandiose, epic. The instrumental layering and interplay is more nuanced. The vocal hooks and blends on choruses evoke an emerging pop sensibility that smacks of Hall and Oates, Shuggie Otis and even Justin Timberlake hits on some songs. Gaines definitely goes more pop-soul vocally, with some bouncy sing-song, a rap, and the occasional falsetto, which blends well with the smoother instrumentation. But then the songs tend to sneak back up into hard jamrock territory with wild organ swells interweaving with building riffs and fills (see “Curtis,” “Come My Way”).
The single right now is a sultry slow jam, “Move a Little Bit,” but the title track, “Fade Away,” an exultant, life-affirming set closer, would be a great choice as well. The rest of the songs are just great funky soul rock. It’s very hard to find a weak spot; if any criticism could be found it’s possibly that the band sometimes shoots itself in the foot by creating a dropout when the groove is already perfect, in the hopes of building back up to it later–which does have a cool effect later, of course–but it can make the listener (or the dancer on the concert hall floor) feel cheated of a crispy groove in the moment. Basically, they go a little proggy almost with their arrangement sometimes when a simpler pop approach (“don’t bore us/get to the chorus”) could really keep their crowd hot and bothered throughout each song and the set.
The band writes together but the skeletons often come from Gaines or Moore and then “it morphs at a band practice,” Moore says.
Moore’s presence is heavily felt throughout every track, whether skanking a verse while milking a wah-wah pedal, volume-swelling walls of distorted chords on big choruses, or tearing into screaming solos, but his flexibility and fluidity as a player probably originates and extends most from his jazz background.
“In high school I played a lot of jazz…jazz and funk,” he reminisces, “learned to play with everybody; my street I grew up on, everybody was prodigies.”
Moore says he constantly pushes to get better, and since the road can find the band repeating material, he finds himself going back to jazz to stay fresh and inspired. When he’s back in Knoxville, he plays in his jazz-funk band Milkshake Fatty as an “outlet.”
Gaines credits the emergence of keyboardist Greg Lawton as a bigger writing force as influencing the group’s smoother R&B, soul and pop directions. “He’s pop guy…he brings those catchy melodies and pushes me to bring that to the table,” Gaines says.
“I’m more excited than I’ve ever been, for sure,” Gaines says. “You always hope that this could be the one…what’s the sound? How do we promote?” He says the band is now trying to look is more like a business. They’re all invested financially. Gaines has already run a car into the ground that he hadn’t even paid off yet. Their gear and recording costs and travel expenses are astronomical. They’re dog-tired all the time (Gaines still handles all the band’s booking and promotion himself). But they know when they say no to opportunities or practice, they lose momentum.
“Everybody’s as good as you,” he says. “You know what you’re getting into, but you really don’t. We’re at the bottom of the barrel. I consider this year one of the band. We’re going for it.”
Three Star Revival releases Fade Away June 1 on Spotify and iTunes and physical CDs. The band plays Bonnaroo’s General Admission Plaza 7 Stage on June 8, opens for Keller Williams June 15 at the Ayerwaves Music Festival in Winfield, Tennessee, and they release Fade Away at Scruffy City Hall on June 16.