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October 10, 1996 * Vol. 6, No. 41

Ghosts with the Most

With a sly wink and a knowing smirk at early rock, The Holy Ghosts know the value of "it's got a good beat and you can dance to it."

by John Sewell

Local music whizkid Brett Winston has been part of the Knoxville scene for some time now, following the usual route for an aspiring musician, a pretty typical roller-coaster of revolving door bands and wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time happenstance. His most notable bands have been El Smarto and the sadly underrated Stinkfoot U.S.A., who unexpectedly broke up on the verge of releasing their first CD. Personally, I've always thought Winston had plenty of talent but that his bands were a little too self-consciously eclectic for their own good. Sure, all his bands featured excellent musicians, but they somehow seemed too ambitious, sailing over the heads of the average listener (including myself).

And when I heard Winston's new band, The Holy Ghosts, described as "a mixture of Tom Waits and Elvis," I had to cringe just a little. The last thing Knoxville needs is another "tormented poet" with delusions of picaresque bardhood. But after actually hearing the band play, I'm pleased to report that these guys aren't too heavily onto a beatnik trip. Instead of falling into a quagmire of artsy pretense, The Holy Ghosts have stumbled upon a mix of good time, Buddy Holly-esque music that hearkens back to the simple roots of rock and country. These guys are fun.

It all came about after the demise of Stinkfoot U.S.A., when Winston decided to take charge of his own band, tackling lead vocals as well as his usual guitar duties.

"After Jon [Stinkfoot vocalist Jon Wallace] moved I couldn't think of anyone that I would want to sing," he says. "Also, I had started to come up with complete musical ideas where I had all the parts: the lyrics, the vocals, and all the music. I always sort of wanted to sing anyway, but I just never thought I could."

Winston assembled a virtual who's who of local musicians to fill the band: Matt Fuller (also of Superfly Sound Trip and various jazz combos) on bass, Doug Campbell (formerly of Dim Kitchen and The Family Jewels) on guitar and--at least for their first few shows--cello, and Jason White (former Stinkfoot U.S.A. percussionist) on drums.

The guys in the band have no problem accepting Winston's role as leader. When asked who is the king of the band, everyone points at Winston.

"I understand that's just a part of our agreement," Campbell says. "I have songs that I get to see realized through the band, but Brett comes up with all of the lyrics. It's not like Brett tells us exactly what to play. I don't consider his telling us what kind of mood to go for musically to be condescending. I consider it enlightenment."

The band's music is a new direction for Winston, whose earlier groups were more oriented toward fusion. The Holy Ghosts' songs utilize the standard framework of American roots rock, coming up with an amalgam of rock, blues, and country that stresses an emphasis on danceability.

Winston says he got the idea to simplify the music from listening to '50's music on the radio. He says he prefers the naive, spontaneous feel of early rock to the pre-packaged alienation of today's alternative rock.

"I just really love the music from that era," he says. "There is always a fresh feeling to those old songs that you just don't find that much today."

Although you can't comfortably hang a "goof rock" tag on these guys, it's obvious they don't waste any time on angst, either.

"I mean, with some of the places we've played, you just have to have a sense of humor. We've even gone out and played among the hippies," Winston says. "But we don't have zany humor like Frank Zappa; it's more of a black humor."

The band's humor was definitely on the darker side when they chose their aliases. Onstage, White, Fuller, Campbell, and Winston morph into Johnny Satan, Reverend Pyro, Crack Baby Shivers, and He Who Can Not Be Named, respectively. Black humor indeed.

The Holy Ghost's have garnered quite a lengthy set list in their short time together. The back-to-basics style of the band lends itself to quick songwriting; in the three or four months they've been together, they've managed to come up with a repertoire of some 60 songs--all originals.

Winston says that if a song doesn't come together quickly, the band usually just forgets about it.

"The songs come along fast, and if we don't get an immediate feeling for it, we usually move along," he shrugs. "We have a lot of songs, but we try to vary the sounds. Our songs don't all sound the same, except sometimes."

So far The Holy Ghosts have found receptive audiences wherever they have played. These days the band can be found playing upstairs at Hawkeye's almost every Saturday night to a crowd of dancing fools.

"It's a hell of a lot of fun and it doesn't take a lot of work and that's cool," Winston reasons. "It brings something out in people, you know? I mean they were dancing!"

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