[By Gerard Shields, Staff Writer]
PHILADELPHIA - The rock music scene in Philadelphia has achieved national acclaim thanks to the Hooters, who have become a favorite on MTV and radio stations throughout the country.
Other Philly acts have also received radio attention over the past six years; bands like Robert Hazard and the Heroes and the now-defunct A’s.
But the excitement in Philadelphia is now at it peak with the debut album by one of its youngest bands, Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers.Conwell and the Rumblers have been a premiere Delaware Valley club band over the last two years, largely thanks to their kick-it-out live performances that leave audiences yearning for more.
Fans who want to take Conwell’s streetwise blues home with them need wait no more. “Walkin’ on the Water,” the band’s first album, is a combination of their trademark, high-powered blues and a new, more mature and controlled Conwell – a side some avid fans may have a hard time getting used to.Conwell built his reputation with fast-and-wild blues guitar and raw vocals that prompted some critics to compare the band to George Thorogood and the Destroyers. But the Rumblers have gone one step further on “Walkin’ on the Water,” incorporating another guitar and supporting keyboards – an instrument that had been foreign to the group.
The line-up in now Conwell on guitar, Paul Slivka on bass, and Jim Hannum on drums, fleshed out be Chris Day on guitar and Rob Miller (a former member of both the Hooters and Hazard’s Heroes) on keyboards.
In a recent interview, Conwell acknowledged that creating a bigger band was his idea.
“That was really me,” said the Bala Cynwyd, Pa. native. “I did it because I want to be a band. I want to have the big sound.”
Conwell built a following from the ground up. He started in Newark, Del., where he was a member of various punk bands while attending the University of Delaware as an English major.
But his main love was jazz. Conwell spent many Saturday nights in jazz clubs watching bands like the Danny Mento Orchestra at the Cherry Hill Holiday Inn.“To me, blues was a link between jazz and rock and roll,” he said. “I like rock, but I couldn’t see myself doing it.”
Conwell borrowed $1,000 to get the Young Rumblers started in 1984. The band originally consisted of drummer Brad Fish and bassist Chaz Molins. After buying a truck for $500 and a mixer for $200, the band paved its way to local popularity with Conwell’s simple formula for success.
“It’s so basic,” Conwell said. “When you go to a club, you have to be good enough so that those people want to come back and see you again and the club wants to hire you back again, so that the next time you play the club, there will be more people.” “It’s as simple as that, and that’s the one thing we could always do,” he said.
Conwell’s independent attitude was also the fuel for the new album, which was released on Antenna Records, the label that carried the Hooters to a national contract. The Rumblers also share the Hooters’ management company, Cornerstone.
Conwell said that the album was made with the money the band had saved over the last two years.
“No one gave us a cent and I’m really proud of that,” he said.
Although Conwell is confident that the new album can land him a contract with a major label, he is not concentrating on being successful, just making music.“I consider the album a reward in that if it sold two copies it would still be a reward,” he said.
“Success is not a goal; success is a reward,” he added. “I want to make good music. I want to be the best that I can be.”
The album was co-produced by Andy King of the Hooters and contains a few songs co-written by Robert Hazard. The influence of the two is evident in a synthesized pop sound.
“Walkin’ on the Water” can be dissected into three parts – the new sound, the traditional rock and roll Conwell, and a fusion of the two.
Songs like “Love’s On Fire” and “I’m Home” are fresh Conwell, with straight-ahead rhythms, smooth guitar hooks and keyboard support that seems aimed at attracting radio play.
Conwell calls the songs his biggest departure. “They actually are pop songs, but I want to do that,” he said. “I want to do both. I want to do it all.”Although some fans may frown upon the departure, the new songs add variety to Conwell’s powerful live appearances and showcase his lyrics, which – although not prolific – show promise.
“You’ve got to realize you’re dealing with different formats,” Conwell said. “Live, you can feel it…On the radio, if you make something too wild, too hectic, or too loose, it’s going to sound trashy.”
The album’s backbone, however, is the blues that made Conwell famous. “I’m Not Your Man,” the first single, has all the elements – a relentless rhythm, straight three-chord base and searing guitar riffs, with great background vocal support.
Likewise, “Tonight’s the Night” and “Million Pretty Girls” are all blues, with the keyboards taking a break. It’s guitar, guitar and more guitar, with rowdy lyrics that serve as the height of a Rumblers concert.
“I’m really glad we put that stuff on the record,” Conwell said. “I’m proud to be a blues man.”
Two of the best tracks on the LP combine the new and the old. “Do You Still Believe in Me” is an excellent ballad with a haunting guitar intro. The song allows Conwell’s lyrics to shine, with lines like “If my grave’s got to be dug/I’ll dig it myself.”
Although Conwell’s voice is raw, he sings with a sincere snarl that makes you stand up and listen. The album is a gift for Rumblers rooters, but Conwell adds that the songs are a little more controlled that the band’s live show.