By Tom Moon, Philadelphia Inquirer Popular Music Critic
To some longtime followers of rocker Tommy Conwell, the first verse of his new song "Play Your Music," which he premiered last night at the Theater of Living Arts, probably sounded autobiographical: "Why do they gotta change him, and take away the beauty of his song, and make him look out of place?" the young rocker wondered, musing on the star- making machinery that has kept him working (and highly visible) since the release of his debut album, Rumble, last fall.
His conclusion, then and all night long: Play your music. In this case it was a brawling, Rolling Stones-style backbeat. Later it was the blues, explored with confidence and a knowing familiarity you can't learn from method books. Still later, it was the assertive Philadelphia-style rock-and-roll of his originals "Love's On Fire" and "Gonna Breakdown."
Performing the first of eight sold-out shows at the intimate South Street theater, Conwell and the Young Rumblers traded the gloss of the record for the true grit of anything-can-happen performance. In dramatic, far-flung stage dancing, Conwell stumbled more than once. But his musical miscues were few, and the energy he communicated was more than enough to compensate. It was as if he were admitting to a bit of sweetening in the studio, and atoning for it with an extra helping of spice.
The well-paced show included a few new selections - with "Play Your Music" among the strongest - but concentrated on material from Rumble. ''Walkin' On the Water" became a fluid celebration stung by darts from Conwell's guitar. "If We Never Meet Again" found Conwell tempering the hope of the lyric with a strong shot of bitterness. Even the snappy "Everything They Say Is True" benefited from the live setting's spaciousness.
Throughout the 90-minute show, the Young Rumblers - Jim Hannum, Rob Miller, Paul Slivka and Chris Day - pumped out lean, supportive backing. Guitarist Day sparked a two-guitar duel with Conwell on the blues "Work It Out," and turned in solos that equaled the leader's in fiestiness. Even during Conwell's extended foray into the crowd, which found him straddling rows and straining to keep his balance, the band shadowed his musical moves, responding to slight changes in volume level or tempo.
Decked in a "Bird Lives" T-shirt and stretch jeans, Conwell commanded most of the attention, however. He paid tribute to his influences - with blues choruses lifted from Muddy Waters and traces of "Salt Peanuts" and other jazz melodies sprinkled through his solos - and yet managed to retain and develop his own snarling personality. Sometimes he'd play everything he could, a flurry of notes that defied comprehension. At other times he'd find a particularly resonant tone and, following blues tradition, milk it for every drop of excitement. Encore performances included "I Want to Make You Happy" and a version of the Rolling Stones' "Hand of Fate."
As Conwell himself said after premiering "Play Your Music," "not too shabby." Not shabby at all.