Rockin' and Reelin' with the Young Rumblers
Fine Times Magazine (1984)
by Donna Brown
Fine Times Magazine (1984)
by Donna Brown
That's Tommy Conwell's catchphrase these days. He uses it onstage when he's particularly pleased with a song and offstage when he's getting excited about a topic.
|Tommy Conwell, Brad Fish, and Chaz Molins|
We're sitting in an Italian restaurant keeping the waitresses from going home, and Conwell is trying to explain the differences between a rockabilly rhythm and a Chuck Berry rhythm. He's tapping away on the table and singing the notes aloud.
That same easy nature and cool patter have helped propel Conwell and his band, the Young Rumblers, to the top of the local music scene in a matter of months. There's a buzz on the street about the band, and it has spread with astonishing speed. Because of it, the Young Rumblers have rocketed from playing Sam's Steakhouse to opening for the Hooters and headlining at the Stone Balloon.
The name itself conjures up an accurate image of the band-all the members are young, and the noise they make is like onstage thunder. It’s fat, loud and full of life. While the music is based on blues, it's injected with a contemporary, even punk, energy. More and more Conwell originals are showing up in the set, and they're as far away from traditional blues as possible.
"I wanna keep doing it our way," Conwell explained. "I want it to be intelligent music. That's the one thing lacking in blues. I'm going down to see my baby/take her to my house/put her in my car/going downtown. God, I hate that shit. It's so dumb! But the music's great - the music's full of fire, full of feeling. That's what I love about it.
"My songs are very ambitious," he continued. "I really write on personal experience. We can do it if we want to; 'Be true to yourself,' 'Baby, I believe in miracles, and you believe in me' - that's what I feel right now."
Conwell's blues chops came relatively late in life. His first influence was jazz, especially Charlie Parker. "Parker is still my main musical influence;" Conwell said. "He's the greatest jazz man who ever lived:" Conwell, 22, turned himself on to jazz when he started listening to George Benson's Breezin' album shortly after he'd acquired his first guitar, the fat Guild he still uses.
"I picked up Downbeat magazine and started to learn about jazz;" he recalled. "I was just starting to play and I wanted to play like George Benson, so I never had that Jimmy Page influence. I can't play rock to this day. I learned by hanging around with pros like the Danny Mento Orchestra.
"They used to play at the Cherry Pit at the Cherry Hill Holiday Inn every Friday and Saturday night. And I'd always go see them because I loved jazz. They played 'My Way' for about 20 old ladies, and there I was. I used to take my guitar down and ask to sit in and they would let me once in a while. I idolized them when I was 18, not the rock stars. I didn't wanna be no rock and roller. I was into music; I was really into jazz and bebop. I was in a jazz quintet in high school."
Because Chuck Berry was influence number two, though, Conwell did appreciate rock and roll, but of a different sort. "Then I dug punk a lot - the Ramones, Sex Pistols. I used to go to the Hot Club in Philly all the time, and that was a huge influence. I saw a lot of smaller acts like the Speedies, Rattlers, the Cure, Johnny Thunders. It was one thing to read about it, but it was good to be a part of it. It's amazing what a good vibe it was. Very open, not snobby. They let anybody in for a $6 cover. It was like somebody's basement, all the walls painted black. It was great:'
When Conwell came to the University of Delaware from Bala Cynwyd as an English major; he joined the Zippers, a new wave-ish band that eventually evolved into the Maytags. "We were doing punk and new wave covers, just stuff we liked,” Conwell said. "But we weren't that stupid, because it did sell. The college punk crowd ate it up. That's one thing I've learned from my experience - how to see a market." After that came a brief stint as a drummer with the Christian Snipers.
But it was in Rockett 88 that Conwell started to get people talking. He was the perfect foil for Mark Kenneally's boisterous brand of blues. While "Doctor Harp" entertained with ribald stories and harmonica shenanigans, Conwell was wowing crowds with his flashy guitar style and youthful good looks. Rockett 88 has always been one of the hardest working bands around and it was during this time that Conwell started to learn the business of music.
"Not long into Rockett 88, I was feeling, 'Jeez, I could do this myself,'" Conwell said. "But I didn't have the knowledge, I thought, 'Well, why not do it myself? Be my own boss.'" But before he could plan his own band, Conwell was asked to join Radio Carolyn, the revamped Imports. "They said we weren't going to play locally, that they were starting with a New York management company. There would be all money gigs, no career gigs. I thought, 'Man, they can't be making this up. It's too far-fetched.' That was pretty dumb of me, but ...I wanted to be on MTV, I wanted exposure, I wanted to make records. But I knew that if it didn't work out, I would start my own band.
The Young Rumblers usually rehearse in Newark, but one night they commandeered Wonderland in the Pike Creek Shopping Center, where bassist Chaz Molins works. It was after hours, and the music attracted a coterie of kids heading for the pizza parlor next door. Peering through the windows, they could only see the backs of Conwell and Molins. Drummer Brad Fish was obscured by record racks.
The band was readying for their first date with the Hooters and planning to make the most of their 40 minutes onstage. Most of the set would be originals like "Work Out," "Walking on the Water;" "Dig It," the brand new "Yeah, Daddy" and Conwell's favorite, "Satisfaction Guaranteed,” which pretty much sums up his outlook:
"I wanna be one of the few / who believe in what they do."
"It's ballsy to say, but I have to believe that l am my best product," Conwell explained. "I'm younger than most guys who play the blues, a different generation. Punk made me want to rock, jazz made me want to play. We have a good mix between them that I hope is self-evident. If you've got a couple things going for you, you might want to flaunt one and let the other happen. I don't want to flaunt my rootsiness, 'cause that's there. I want to flaunt my punkness."
One way the Young Rumblers do that is with a garage-sale-cum-new-wave look. Molins' punkish hair and Conwell's spiky mop contrast with their bowling shirts, ties and fatigues. Conwell sometimes writes messages on his chest for the evening's end, when he strips off his shirt "When I played before Rocky Horror (at the State Theater in Newark) and wrote shit on my chest, I wanted to give them, what they wanted. They didn't want to see some country guitar picker. "The Young Rumblers appeal to a lot of markets," Conwell said. "That's one thing I was conscious of when I started it. We appeal to blues fans and Joe-off-the street, because everybody likes blues and everybody likes to hear someone cookin' on the guitar."
"Girls are another market," Conwell continues, grinning. "I sell myself to girls. I sing personal songs like 'I Love You' or 'I Want to be Your Driver,' or my stuff like ‘Work Out’ and 'She's a Fine Little Girl, the Best in the World. 'I try to sing personal songs and mean them. I'll put my guitar in their face and go 'oooo-oooo' and make them giggle. That's one of the biggest ways I sell to them. All I gotta do is get them to relax and we'll have a good time.
True enough. When Conwell cuts through the dance floor, trailing a long guitar cord behind him, no one is immune. If you're not reacting, odds are he'll climb on your table - playing all the while - then crouch down and "talk" to you with the guitar.
"I know how to create a stir," Conwell admitted. "'Be wild but be good. I have some concept of entertainment and I'm always thinking, 'How can I make things fresh?' I don't use a set list. I say, 'Let's do this one.' I like treating it as a job."
Conwell recently quit his other job, as a cook, to devote himself to music. "I liked being a cook," he said. "I used to be a landscaper and that was too damn strenuous. I like something you can put a little pride into. It's hard to be proud of digging ditches."
Because he wants to be proud of every aspect of the band, Conwell is taking weekly vocal lessons. In Rockett 88, he only sang back-up and the major flaw in the earliest Young Rumblers gigs was Conwell's obvious uneasiness at singing lead. Now he's strikingly confident, making the most of his Presley-like sideways smile.
Out of the spotlight, Conwell looks like a milk-fed all-American WASP, but onstage he looks more like Eddie Cochran-meets-Brian Setzer. Conwell, however, disdains the comparison. °I don't wanna be rockabilly. I've got the fat guitar, I play rootsy music, put my hair up a little bit. But it's kind of a revised rockabilly look. I figure that's enough, because it catches the eye of that market. But I don't want to cater to them.
"I guess I don't like rockabilly because I've been tagged with it," he continued. "If I hadn't, I wouldn't have anything against it. I don't want to get rid of that fat guitar, because I’m not gonna make it rockabilly. I’m gonna make it me.
"As a songwriter, I’m a baby," he added. "I've always been more conscious of my playing than my songwriting, but I'm coming to the end of that. The thing about writing is it's so risky. You have to lay out so much of yourself." Conwell credits his creativity to his girlfriend, Carol. "She's my inspiration and she's very supportive. I don't know what I'd do without her, which is real weird because it hasn't been long that I've felt that way."
He relies on his band, too. 'The first time I saw Fish play, I was totally knocked out. He's got the magic, not technique. He's got that indescribable thing. And Chaz looks contemporary, he's pleasant, young and has a good ear. The band is so young, but I know how much potential they have.”
Fans, in fact, have already affectionately tagged the three members Ham, Fish and Cheese. That's appropriate, since Conwell admits he's a shameless ham when it comes to winning over a crowd. "I realize that it can be intimidating to have all this attention poured on you, but I think I have it figured out. I'm gonna keep on doing just what I'm doing. It can be stifling, but I’m trying not to be intimidated, because I have faith in myself."