Most kids who grow up on Philadelphia's affluent Main Line become doctors, lawyers, stock brokers -- nice white-collar professionals like their parents. But not Tommy Conwell. He's a blues rocker with a band called the Young Rumblers that's been rattling longnecks on the bars in dank East Coast clubs for a couple of years now.
Conwell started out as an English major at the University of Delaware in the early '80s with the intention of becoming a teacher. "I figured if I was an English teacher, I'd have weekends and summers off to play guitar," he says, his baritone rich and groggy. "But I never got around to graduating."
Instead he joined a punk band called Zippers and "played frat parties and small venues in Delaware, like Sam's Steak House." But the punk eventually gave way to the blues. "My roommate had the Fabulous Thunderbirds' first two records," he recalls, "and I really got turned on to Jimmie Vaughan. I got into Slim Harpo, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters."
While still playing with the Zippers, he joined Rockett 88, "a blues band that really fashioned itself after the Thunderbirds," he says.
The blues that Conwell plays could be called the Delaware sound: a tight guitar with a harsh edge, a gruff beer-and-butts voice with an arrogant attitude. It's rock-and-roll with a barroom swagger. Like George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers.
"Thorogood is great," Conwell says, "and he was right there in town, so of course he had an influence on me. He does these great old songs in his great old way.
"But," he adds modestly, "I can't do that anywhere as well as Thorogood."
A few years back, Conwell formed the Young Rumblers with a handful of Philadelphia and Delaware musicians: Jim Hannum on drums, Paul Slivka on bass and former Hooters bassist Rob Miller on keyboards. They cut an independent album, "Walkin' on Water" (Antenna), and a major release, "Rumble" (Columbia). And this year, after spending two years on the road, they recorded "Guitar Trouble" (Columbia) with newest member Billy Kemp, a Baltimore guitarist formerly of the Paradise Rockers. It's a bully of an album, cocky and very sure of itself. Take, for example, "I'm Seventeen," featuring Bruce Hornsby on keyboards:
I'm 17 and I am cool
I'm 17 and I break the rules
I'm 17 and I don't care
cause I ain't going anywhere.
Conwell, on the other hand, is definitely going somewhere.
Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers are performing at the Bayou Tuesday night. Doors open at 8. Tickets are $12.50 and available at Ticketron. For information, call 202-333-2898.
PAUL ZALOOM'S SATIRE FRENZY Paul Zaloom is a political satirist. Not your usual poke-fun-at-politicians type, mind you. He likes to think of himself as a "new wave" political satirist. "I'm not Mark Russell," he says, firmly. "And I'm certainly not Mort Sahl."
That's putting it mildly. Zaloom pokes fun at our everyday existence by creating a "comedic frenzy," thereby making us laugh at what he says is "ultimately our demise."
He takes objects he finds in junkyards -- sponges, bottles, ordinary household items -- and brings them to life. "I manipulate them like they're characters," he says. "I walk them and talk them."
He uses this technique in "My Civilization," his new three-part production, which he describes as "a look at my relationship to society and civilization and the degree of how bogus it is." In "Meanwhile ...," a spoof on the current controversy in the arts, thick, fluffy paint brushes represent successful artists. Skinny, fine-tip brushes are starving artists. The National Endowment for the Arts is played by a football. NEA Chairman John Frohnmeyer is a frog.
Zaloom also brings out things we haven't seen since, oh, say, high school. Remember the overhead projector? He has one. In the first part of "My Civilization," he puts water and food dye and all sorts of rubber animals on the light box to illustrate his life from the 1950s to the present. "It's this great kingdom of cheap special effects," he says. The result is "a live-action, animated cartoon."
The middle section of "My Civilization," and by far the scariest, is called "Phood." Zaloom, with the help of another ancient video contraption, the slide projector, describes how our food has become nothing more than a clump of chemicals and synthetics.
"For example," he says, "there is a powder beef plasma that is being used as an egg replacement in baking products. And there is a food preservative in snack food that causes irritation to the skin and nostrils and can be explosive in storage. I think we have gotten a little bit away from what food is supposed to be. That it's poison, basically. I find that amusing -- and I hope the audience does too."
Paul Zaloom is performing at the Studio Theatre Tuesday through Sunday and Dec. 19 through Dec. 23 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and available at the box office. For information, call 202-332-3300. IRIS BENJAMIN: LIVING A DREAM Iris Benjamin didn't have the guts to become a jazz singer. "I obsessed about it quietly," she says, "and I never really thought I'd have the nerve to do it. That I'd be too terrified."
Then, about 10 years ago, while living in Los Angeles and making a living as a rock band vocalist, she met Linda Miller Williams, the former musical director for Natalie Cole.
"She's the one who finally said to me, jazz is what is really for you," says Benjamin. "That no matter what I sang, my voice always had that kind of bent to it. And that was it."
She moved back to her native Washington and started working the jazz club network. In the past five years she's performed with the best of local musicians -- pianist Bob Butta, longtime Ella Fitzgerald bassist Keter Betts, vibraphonist Jon Metzger and saxophonist Buck Hill, to name a few. And she recently released "Passing By" (Indigo), a collection of standards, from Nat King Cole's "When I Fall in Love" to Jerome Kern's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," that she has reworked and updated.
"I knew deep down in my heart I could do this music, that it was what I really wanted to do," Benjamin says. "And once when you make that commitment, it's like, aaaah."
Iris Benjamin is performing at Blues Alley tomorrow night at 8 and 10. Tickets are $12.50. For information call 202-337-4141.