J a n u a r y   2 0 0 3

Aural Report

Tommy Womack's real life
Making the other arts jealous
by Kurt Dahlke

eet Tommy Womack: certainly not the last and maybe not the best rocker to ever walk the earth – but when you're in his musical presence such distinctions don't really much matter.

A marvel at 40: Tommy Womack pays out dividends in greasy, rocking waves.

These are lines from Womack's "You Could Be At The Beach Right Now, Little Girl," a song that tells the woeful tale of a trust-fund co-ed:

“93 Phish and Panic shows
They saw the grades, they cut the cord”

You don't pay lightly for wisdom and writing talent like that, which nearly sums up the entire life of the Little Girl in question in a few arch syllables.

Tommy Womack hasn't paid lightly, but the dividends coming off of him in greasy, rocking waves could make you want to shrug off the straight life forever.

Marvel at this 40-year-old man (he told us he recently cut lead guitar tracks for someone at the exact second his middle-age clock turned over) on a cold late-November evening at Duff's Garage as he churns through good ol' Willie Dixon's "Hootchie Cootchie Man," combining a solid six-string sonic-beating with transcendent guitar pyrotechnics.

Twenty-year-old guitarists take note: You may think you're rocking out up there on stage, but until you have a kid and a day-job and rock like Tommy Womack, you are not really rocking.

What Womack brings to the stage is Authority. He's been slinging guitar for 20 years at least; his band, Government Cheese, finally rode to regional dominance, national touring and MTV airplay in the late '80s, and he's still hitting the road today – though he hasn't yet been able to cash in.

So now, grappling with the horrors of Real Life, he's finally able to ass-kick with carte blanche. Why? Because he knows his chances of grabbing the brass ring. And because he knows that all the other arts are jealous of rock 'n' roll, which can seem so immediate and phenomenally powerful. At least when he is playing.

In Womack's hands the gripping, clockwork funk of "A Little Bit Of Sex," from his first album, Positively Na Na, expands into a 20-minute monologue about the life of an aging Kiss groupie about to have sex with Gene Simmons after 25 years of waiting.

From damaging to bittersweet: Circus Town is Womack's latest.

It's here where Authority becomes important, both on the part of Womack and his Portland pick-up band, with local favorite Corey Burdon on drums and Alabama transplant Jay Johnson on bass. Dilettants could not pull off this kind of trick. The backing duo shows amazing tact, prescience and skill, gently carpet-bombing the groove while projecting waves of enthusiasm as Womack holds court.

And eventually, the guitar comes crashing back in.

That is what art is all about: matching skill, dedication and enthusiasm. That, maybe, and the shots of Maker's Mark he somewhat stealthily summons from the bar.

Regardless, Womack's ragged voice (blown out the night before in Seattle) echoes the bloodstains on his guitar (shredded finger: Seattle) and evokes the spirits of Bob Dylan and, I don't know … Joe Cocker, maybe. It causes the small but rabid crowd to begin foaming at the mouth.

Womack's songs range from the vocal-cord damaging "My Name Is Mud" to the bittersweet nostalgia of "Nancy Dunn," both from his recent Circus Town CD. The tunes are carried not only by Womack's wit and skill, but also by Johnson's melodic, intuitive and spot-on bass, and Burdon's endlessly tumbling, skintight drums.

And since it's that kind of night, we also get the occasional added soloing efforts of the evening's opener, Sideburn label-mate John Bunzow, who jumps up and plugs in whenever he feels the urge.

Not stupid: Womack knows the odds of grabbing the brass ring.

Womack screams into the face of corporate obsolescence, kicks the genitals of artistic intransigence and roughs up your conceptions of social order with his literate, scathing lyrics and guitar-hero brio.

But he's got a soft side, and he lets you know he's not stupid.

This is what rock 'n' roll sounds like to adults. Stupendous. Unbelievable.

E-mail Kurt at orangeandorange@msn.com, and don't miss his previous reports.

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