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It is etched in Tre’ Nation’s mind, that one time he met Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts, a few minutes after Nation and his bandmates opened for the Rolling Stones at FedExField in Landover, Md., a couple summers ago.
“We took a picture with them right before their set,” recalls Nation, the lead vocalist for Pittsburgh-based blues-rock band Ghost Hounds, which had a one-off deal to open the Stones’ long-running “No Filter Tour” on July 3, 2019.
“I turned around — because I heard walking behind me — and I see Mick Jagger strutting down the hallway. I just pointed at him and I said, ‘Heyyyy!’ and he pointed at me and said, ‘Yeahhhhhhh!’ ... They were just so nice. I was sweaty and stinky and they didn’t care. They wanted to hug us.”
“They smell great,” Nation adds, in a tone that makes it clear he is offering a genuine compliment. “And their costumes were awesome. It was great. It was wonderful, man. It was nothing but good vibes.”
And apparently, Ghost Hounds — which was formed by Thomas Tull, one of the band’s guitarists, who notably is a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a Hollywood movie producer — made an impression on the legendary rockers. This year, the Hounds were invited back to open for the Stones again, this time for a run of five fall dates.
The first of those will be at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium on Thursday, when Mick Jagger & Co. will headline the first major concert tour at the venue since 2014. The “No Filter Tour” resumed in St. Louis Sunday after a lengthy pandemic break. It was their first major show without the late drummer, Charlie Watts.
Nation says Ghost Hounds will perform a 45-minute warm-up set featuring 10 songs — several of which will come from their sophomore album, “A Little Calamity,” out since Sept. 3.
“Oh man, excited is the understatement of the century,” Nation says, nodding to getting a second chance at opening for the Rolling Stones but also to the fact that they’re able to perform at all, given the limitations the pandemic put on touring.
“Yeah, the quick incline from no stage to a huge stage, it’s a little bit of a brain-boggler,” Nation said.
In an interview with the Observer on Monday, Nation shed light on what Ghost Hounds is all about; their experiences opening not just for the Stones but also Willie Nelson, Bob Seger and ZZ Top; and a perhaps-little-known secret to Mick Jagger’s success.
The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Q. So I’ve read up on you a lot, and I did listen to “A Little Calamity” over the weekend, but can you in your own words give me the elevator speech and sum up what your band is all about?
We’ve been together for a few years. We just love music, man. The thing that makes our band special is that — outside of our love for music — there’s not a lot of reasons for any of us to really be in the same room. We’re very, very different people, and we live different lives. But music, man, it’s got a magical thing about it that just brings people together. And I think that that’s really what we allow to be the center of gravity for us, is our music.
Q. So how did you guys get together?
This is actually the second iteration of the band. Thomas hadn’t really played in awhile, and he was looking to get his chops back on the guitar.
Thomas and (guitarist) Johnny (Baab), they have a mutual friend — Ty Taylor — who is the lead singer of Vintage Trouble. So he and Johnny started jamming out and Thomas realized that he wanted to revitalize the band. ... Then it became just a game of Connect Four. Honestly, it’s a magical thing the way everything came together.
I was found on an Instagram Story, and, you know, those only last for 24 hours. Johnny and (drummer) Blaise (Lanzetta), they know each other from playing around Brooklyn, and I believe (bassist) Bennett (Miller) and Johnny met the same way. And (keyboardist) Joe Munroe is a legend of Pittsburgh, and we were lucky to have found him by accident. He was a last-minute recommendation for someone that fell through for a session for us.
There’s so many synchronicities that just had to be strung together for us to even know each other. And it just clicked. We have a synergy that we are very proud of.
Q. What’s the story behind the band’s name?
There’s a myth about (blues singer and guitarist) Robert Johnson, that he went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil so that he could develop skill on the guitar. But really it was because he was not good at guitar, he went away to practice, he used to practice in a graveyard, and so I guess that’s where the myth developed.
But that’s something that he leaned into later in his career, and there’s a song that he has (titled “Hellhound On My Trail”) where he mentions the hellhounds are nipping at his feet. The idea is that when you make a deal with the devil and he comes to collect your soul, he sends his hellhounds. So Ghost Hounds is kind of a PG version of that. It’s all meant to be a tip of the hat to Robert Johnson.
Q. And how would you describe the band’s sound?
You know, ironically, our biggest influence is actually the Rolling Stones. What we love about the Rolling Stones is that they allow themselves to kind of be chameleons in music. But they do have this definitive vibe. Like, it’s a sound, but it’s also a strong vibe. And we like to explore our musical sounds that way as well.
We have a sound that just naturally occurs when we get together and play. Johnny and Thomas are blues fanatics. I grew up listening to gospel music and R&B and pop. Blaise, undercover, he’s a great hip-hop producer. Bennett has a master’s degree in jazz theory, I believe.
There’s so many different elements that we have in our toolbelt, that we can just throw in and make something that sounds fresh and a little new, but still has our Ghost Hounds vibe.
We take those liberties because of the influence of the Stones on us.
Q. Were you a big Stones fan when you were growing up?
No, I actually didn’t become a fan of the Stones until later in the 2000s. And when I realized that we’d be opening for them ... it just didn’t seem realistic. But then we did, and we met them, and they were so sweet and nice to us. I think now I may be a bigger fan than people who have been listening to them for the last 50 years.
Q. Before COVID, you guys were having a heck of run. In 2019, you also opened for ZZ Top, Bob Seger and Willie Nelson. How did the band get to a place where these opportunities were an option in the first place?
Man, I’ll tell you it’s luck and magic. There’s no other way. ... I believe 100 percent that we got this gig based on the merit of our music, and just being in the right place at the right time. Because no matter how much money you throw around or how big your name is, good music is good music. I truly believe that we have great music.
And the people that go to those shows, they have a definitive idea of what good music is. ... It’s always a risk jumping in front of those people, but I think that it was so beautiful how we were received.
Q. Any particularly interesting takeaways from those 2019 experiences?
When we do these things, it’s a surreal situation, but you also realize that these people are regular people. (ZZ Top lead vocalist) Billy Gibbons used to come into our dressing room before the show, and he would be in his pajamas ... and making random conversation, just like a regular person. And you wouldn’t really expect The Reverend to be a regular person. You see him as The Reverend, you know? There’s this humanizing factor to these people who are icons.
It almost puts you in a mindset where anything’s possible. So I am enjoying this very much, and I really hope to continue to have these kinds of opportunities.
Q. During the photo opp you mentioned, did you get a chance to meet Charlie Watts? (Watts died in August at the age of 80.)
I did. Super-sweet human, man. The nicest person. What a great loss. I mean, I can’t even imagine how they must be feeling playing without him. It’s gotta be a challenging thing to do.
Q. Have you had any other interaction with the Stones?
No, the only interaction I had with them was (the photo opp).
But somebody offered to let me hang out with Chucky Klapow for a few days while they were in Chicago (in 2019). Chucky Klapow is a choreographer who works with Mick Jagger. He’ll travel around, and every day they’ll just get up and they’ll do, you know, some physical activities. Which is kind of a secret I maybe shouldn’t tell you.
But anyway, they reached out and let me hang out with Chucky and gave me pointers and let me hang out with (touring band member) Sasha Allen, a powerhouse vocalist who is on stage with the Rolling Stones so much.
They were very willing to impart knowledge. That wasn’t something I was expecting. Usually when you have someone who’s been doing these things for so long, they’re not very generous with their expertise that they’ve learned. They’re kind of conservative about it. But they were so willing to just help, and make me feel comfortable.
Q. Watching some of your live performances on YouTube, it did strike me that — like Mick Jagger — you don’t just stand up there and sing. You’re moving, you’re shaking, you’re putting on a performance. So then, when you were hanging out with Chucky Klapow, what did you pick up? What did it make you think about the way you move around on stage?
Chucky actually worked with Michael Jackson on the “This Is It Tour.” So it was really cool for him to see what I do already, and then say, “Alright, let’s pull these elements out.” There was a camaraderie because we come from the same creative background. ...
The funny thing about it is that, as a performer, one of my greatest inspirations is Michael Jackson — Michael Jackson and all the performers that came after him, like Beyoncé and Usher, who dance. I feel like if you’re gonna be a singer, you’re gonna dance, because that’s the way of translating the music.
When the Stones started out, and you see those videos of Mick Jagger and he’s sweaty and moving his body just because, it’s not necessarily the most skillful movement, but it’s because of the music. The only way to be able to translate the music in that fashion is you have to feel it first. If your body’s not moving, then no one else’s body’s gonna be moving.
Q. Do you have a most memorable moment from that 2019 date with the Stones?
There’s so many moments, but the thing that I always go back to is just being on stage. Being on that stage is a privilege that they’ve given us, and I’m so grateful for it. ... Because they’re essentially allowing us the privilege of standing in front of their audience, that they’ve built. ... My thought about this whole thing is like, “Yeah, I’m gonna make them proud by doing my best on the stage, and let them see that it was worth them extending this privilege to me.”