Last Friday at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, a familiar tune wafted across the grounds around sundown, and it sounded great. It was Tom Petty’s beautiful ballad “Wildflowers,” being played by New Orleans band the Revivalists near the end of their set in memory of the singer who’d passed away a few days prior. Then they upped the ante by going straight into “Refugee,” picking up the tempo considerably and sounding just as strong on one of Petty’s signature rockers.
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That was enough to suggest the group’s second-weekend set at the fest was worth checking out. It’s fair that the band didn’t revisit those covers this Friday, as the acknowledgment of Petty was more timely last week. Problem is, without those two great songs in the set, the Revivalists were left to stand on their own material, during a prime hour of the festival. And their repertoire just isn’t strong enough for that.
It might have appeared otherwise at the start. The band charged out of the gate with “Wish I Knew You,” a fair-sized radio hit from their most recent album, 2015’s “Men Amongst Mountains.” The crowd was densely packed all the way back to the sound board, and many sang along without any prompting. Lead singer David Shaw roamed the stage with a personable charisma, backed by a super-talented six-piece crew that draws extra color from pedal steel and saxophone.
But that was as good as it got. The rest of the band’s hourlong performance included tunes from their three albums that grew increasingly tiresome and formulaic as the set went on. Every song was about six minutes long. Most of them included jam-band builds to a frenetic finish. The musicianship was impeccable and the band was endlessly energetic, but the melodies and the lyrics didn’t rise to the high bar of the instrumentation.
You could feel it in the crowd, which gradually lost interest except for a few hundred hardcore fans up front. The middle section thinned out; those who sang along early weren’t motivated to do so again, despite Shaw’s increasingly annoying exhortations. At least a half-dozen times, he asked them to join in, either on chorus chants or for simple whoa-oh-oh vamps: “Now you do that!” “Let me hear ya!” “Sing it with me!”
By the time Shaw sent out a “last chance, come on now!” plea on the band’s final tune, much of the crowd that amassed early had drifted off toward the evening’s next sets at nearby stages. Ultimately the Revivalists seemed a little bit in over their heads. They might have worked better as an early-afternoon act on a slightly smaller stage, but the Honda at sundown? Boundless energy and chops notwithstanding, they just don’t have the songs.