Friday, August 9, 2013

A Rumble of Rock and Blues

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers' Rumble. [July 9 - August 9]

Philadelphia Inquirer Album Review of Rumble, 1988.
A 'Rumble' of rock and blues

Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers' major-label debut

by Tom Moon
Inquirer Popular-Music Critic

(Philadelphia Inquirer - August 8, 1988)

The most revealing moment on
Rumble, Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers' major-label debut that will be released today, comes near the end of Side Two with "Tell Me What You Want Me To Be," a chugging, locomotive jump written by Conwell and veteran songwriter Jules Shear.

As an electric guitar scratches out the Morse code rhythm, Conwell sings of a drifter, scattering details between episodes of bluesy guitar contemplation. When the conclusion arrives -- in the form of the country-fied chorus:


"Well, there is no happiness being this free \
Oh Lord, won't you tell me what you want me to be?" 

-- the character's trials, formerly hinted at in the vocals (and explored in the guitar solos), become blindingly clear.

The song is no longer a trite character play. It is an expression of something that has nearly vanished in the sofa-cushioned world of contemporary rock and roll: desperation. This is a last-ditch plea. Conwell's voice cries out for help from anywhere -- even, perhaps, from the TV evangelists. The guy's in trouble.

Such a call for guidance is common in blues and gospel and other American music forms, and "Tell Me..." tells all about Conwell's intentions. It is an evocation of that crossroads where the bluesman collides with the "break down these walls" attitude of the rocker, and both sojourners walk away fundamentally changed.

That kind of collision happens all over
Rumble, with varying degrees of success. Conwell and his band, a Philadelphia institution since shortly after its formation in 1984, have earned a reputation playing music that channeled the raw emotion of rock through a more refined understanding of the blues and gospel.

Subscribers to the "sweat first, message later" school, this band has made a record like few in recent memory. Rumble, on Colulmbia, is a real rock-and-roll record, but not a ponderous one. It's hooky, but not gushy. It's direct, but not blunt. It's cocky, but not pretentious.

Unlike other blues-derivative bands that have won success walking these fine lines -- the Fabulous Thunderbirds, for example -- the Rumblers take the rock side of the mix seriously. Conwell has the look of a budding teen idol. The band oozes attitude -- in the grooves, where it counts, not (as yet) in the marketing campaign, the way many budding metal bands do.

Some of the familiar originals have titles like "Walkin' on the Water." As performed on the new album, they contain the strident backing vocals and crunching guitars found more often on rock epics than the blues.

But on Rumble, even the most frothy pop has twinges of blues sensibility. Shear's "If We Never Meet Again" sounds at first like a soft-strumming-acoustic-guitar pop song in the mold of the Eagles. Conwell, going against what is expected, complements his chiming vocals with melodic, occasionally weeping lines of slide guitar that give the love lyrics a regretful spin.

These touches are everywhere: The four-measure instrumental segments that interrupt the verses of Love's On Fire contain evidence of Conwell's ear for knotty, fresh-sounding lead lines. Likewise, the conversation between Conwell's voice and his guitar on the interlude of Gonna Breakdown reveals the guitarist to be a student of the blues-rock of the mid-'60's, one capable of translating those riffs into a decidedly contemporary setting.

Longtime fans of the band will note considerable development since the independently produced 1986 LP Walkin' On the Water, which sold 70,000 copies in regional release. Four songs from that effort -- the single I'm Not Your Man and "Love's On Fire," "Walkin' on the Water" and "Everything They Say is True" -- come off sweet rather than sour. In addition, he has become a more confident vocal personality: He can adopt an ice-cold sneer or a bluesman's growl effortlessly, without apologizing for the new-found assertiveness.

The Rumblers have developed as well. Keyboardist Rob Miller, who joined the band just before the Walkin' sessions, contributes percolating organ chords that are integral to the intensity of almost every song. Paul Slivka and Jim Hannum, the bass-drums team, know instinctively when to dig in and when to evaporate; their interplay gives Conwell lots of room to emote, and the songs a necessary structure.

In live performance, Conwell and the Rumblers have long adapted a simplicity of presentation that comes from blues and early rock and roll. The production of Rumble, handled by veteran Rick Chertoff (Cyndi Lauper, The Hooters), had to capture that in the studio, and did. Chertoff is professionally invisible in the mix, committed to getting the sound of the band rather than the sound of him producing the band, a common production trip.

That makes Rumble more lively than man-rock albums -- it exhibits a live-performance energy and a cohesiveness that often gets lost on other records under layers of needless padding. The only flaw: While the guitar tracks are slap-you-in-the-face close, there are moments when Conwell's guitar should be allowed to stretch. Chertoff, perhaps mindful of the hit-singles potential of some of these songs, might have clipped the engaging guitarist too close to the vest in a few spots, denying Rumble's audience the chance to experience an inventive guitar voice.

Then again, listen to the three blues choruses Conwell blisters on "Workout," and recall the words of one of his idols, the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker: "If you can't say what you have to say in three choruses, you can't say it." 


On that solo and throughout the Rumble, Conwell says exactly what he sets out to say.

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