A couple weeks back, this year's UTW SXSW essay contest winner name-checked Tony Romanello as one of the Tulsa artists he'd love to see represent our city at the big festival south of the Red River.
Although Romanello has been out of the spotlight over the past few years, Clifford Cravello's reasoning was sound, if admittedly sentimental: Romanello is a solid veteran of our scene, he deserves it, has never been to the festival and Cravello (as well as many others) simply likes his music.
I've got to admit, I'm one of those others. I've been a fan of Romanello since I first heard his music at Mayfest nearly 10 years ago. I know I'm not the only one. The combination of Romanello's creative songwriting, his tight and dynamic band along with the fact that he's engaging and sincere makes it hard to not pull for him and want to see bigger things come his way.
When word came that Romanello was folding in the summer of 2005, the news was met with a bit of dismay and disappointment by many. After investing five years developing from his impressive debut disc, The MumbleOdd, thru Counting Stars, and into the modern rock of TRB's Where Are You Tonight EP and self-titled disc, the timing seemed horrible. Just as TRB was truly coming into its own and had released one of the best local albums of the year (In fact, it still stands out to me as one of the best local discs of the past decade), everything came to a screeching halt.
Although it may have seemed like Romanello just up and quit for those on the outside, that wasn't truly the case. Although burnout was a contributing factor, that wasn't the only thing that spawned the dissolution of TRB.
"There were a bunch of different things that effected my decision," Romanello said. "My job was in flux, I had a really good opportunity come up and my wife and I both got accepted to the same school."
When all of the stars came into alignment, it was a move that Romanello needed to make, so he and his wife moved to Waco, Texas, to attend grad school and take another job.
It's not like Romanello quit playing altogether, though. He did release another EP, Rock 'n' Roll Fairytales, in 2006 and occasionally played a show or two when in town to visit family. For the most part, however, he did disappear from Tulsa for the better part of three years.
Romanello and his wife actually returned to Tulsa just over two years ago, even though he's been relatively quiet on our music scene since then.
"It was back in the fall of 2008, when the economy was going south," he said. "I had actually been working in Austin for about a year and I got a good job offer that led us back to Tulsa."
When reflecting on his time in Austin, Romanello said he did more writing than performing.
"A band never materialized," he said. "It was kind of ironic, really, that for the first time in my life I was in a major music city and I couldn't make a band materialize. I was back in Tulsa for about a year then, before I really settled back in."
Nearly a year later, on Halloween night, 2009, Romanello debuted his new band, The Black Jackets, at Tulsa's Freaker's Ball.
"That was really my first reemergence back into the local music scene," Romanello said. "It was a good excuse to get back on stage: I mean, what better place than at Cain's Ballroom? And Dave (Souders, organizer of Freaker's Ball) has always been a good friend and good to work with."
Since that debut, The Black Jackets have played roughly a dozen shows, which is less than originally intended, but as Romanello explained, that's part of life right now.
"Priorities change as you get older," Romanello said. "We're all married -- well, one is engaged -- and we've all got families and other gigs and jobs we care about. Scheduling was also an issue and we've had an inordinate amount of cancelled gigs that we had scheduled over the past year.
"Our goal is to play one or two times a month and we're moving in that direction," he continued. "The scene has changed so much: the bands, the clubs, the role the band splays in the clubs -- it's all changing."
Also affecting how often the band can play is the calendar of all five members. Drummer Mike Friedemann and guitarist Mike Taylor also play with Philip Zoellner in addition to having their own band, Radio Wave Days, which has taken a back seat as of late.
"The thing is, I loved TRB and we tried so hard to make it work, but I finally met a point of burnout," Romanello said. "After three or four years, I realized I still loved playing and missed it, but I had to ask myself 'How do you do it again without burning out? What do you do to get back to playing for the fun of it and the love of the music?'"
Eventually, Romanello called four of his best friends, most of which already had other gigs to see if they were available. Right away, each one agreed to be part of the project, but Romanello had already decided that the plans would not include rehearsing or playing out three to four nights a week and touring was not part of the plan unless a really great opportunity presented itself.
As such, The Black Jackets ends up being one of Romanello's largest bands, but perhaps his most intimate at the same time. Long time friend and co-conspirator Andy Callis is once again on board on guitar, along with bassist Matt Vandaveer, rounding out a lineup that includes Romanello, Friedemann and Taylor. With three guitarists (including Romanello), the group is stepping back into good, loud old-fashioned rock 'n' roll and not taking things too seriously or adding any unneeded pressure.
"I'm backing of the pedal a little this time, so to speak," Romanello said. "This time it's more about what it means to play music and enjoy it. I can to some sort of realization at some point that there shouldn't be an end goal to playing music. You're not going to one day look around and say 'I'm here!' A real musician should be constantly evolving and growing and I'd like to think that's what I'm doing with this band."
So where is that evolution taking Romanello? After starting out in more of a singer-songwriter vein with indie rock leanings, he eventually spread his wings onto more commercial, modern rock with TRB. Rock 'n' Roll Fairytales was a bit of a left turn, then, stripping things back to a rawer, garage rock vibe.
"When I made the EP, I wasn't doing it to spite anyone or anything," he said. "It was just completely different from TRB. "It was a group of songs that TRB had actually heard, but didn't fit with the band. I felt like they needed more of a garage rock sound with fewer keys -- just loud and raw. I was getting back to the idea of 'song over sound.'"
With The Black Jackets, Romanello said "I've always felt like I'm a singer/songwriter at my core. I'm just trying to find the best outlet and sound for that."
As such, the Black Jackets does touch on some of Romanello's earlier material and a couple TRB selections as well as most of the material on the Fairytale EP, but Romanello said the group's best material comes from collaboration.
"I have tons of songs that I've written and given to the guys to work on," he said. "Some of it sounds good and some of it, not so much. What sounds best to me is when we collaborate. I'll go into my back room with an idea and record and acoustic demo, then send it to the guys and everyone works out their own parts."
With an eye toward playing more frequently around Tulsa, Romanello and the band have already secured a spot opening for Gooding at The Treehouse in late March and is waiting to hear back on its status for Norman Music Festival and Mayfest and is looking to book more shows. As well as wanting to get out and play, Romanello believes that gigging more regularly and getting into the recording studio will help the band solidify its sound and direction -- something he's looking forward to.
If you haven't had a chance to catch up with Tony Romanello and the Black Jackets, you'll have the chance when the band plays Mercury Lounge, 1747 S. Boston Ave., this Friday night, Feb. 18, with Philip Zoellner Band. The two groups have been trying to pair up for shows and it works well since Friedemann and Taylor play in both bands and they two complement each other without playing the same style music. Overall, it will be a great night of music and cover is only $5
It looks like Tulsa is finally thawing out and I know we're all hoping we've seen the last of the bitter cold. If the past two weeks have got you stir crazy, there are plenty of shows to get you out of the house and keep you busy, so read on for the highlights.
Thursday night, Feb. 17, is dominated by big shows at the casinos. If you're looking for classic soul and R&B, The Commodores are at River Spirit Events Center while Kenny Loggins plays The Joint for the retro-rock and pop crowd. Meanwhile, Osage Events Center has the modern rock crowd covered with Hinder, Saving Able, My Darkest Days (who, rumor has it, will be joining Three Days Grace for The Edge's Birthday show on April 1) and Kopek. If you feel like keeping it local, Kristin Nicole will be playing Hunt Club on Thursday, as well.
Friday night, Feb. 18, is a great night for music as Glister and The Flash Bangs play Downtown Lounge, NoBunny plays Reverb with Lizard Police, The Dull Drums and La Panther Happens and Dante and the Hawks appear at Hunt Club. Also on Friday is the aforementioned Black Jackets/Phil Zoellner Band show at Mercury Lounge.
Saturday, Feb. 19, is a good night to get more eclectic as Benjamin Lyman plays Tulsa Backward (at the old Under the Mooch location) with Kaito Gigantia, Electric Rag Band plays Mercury Lounge and Dustin Pittsley appears at Arnie's while Reverb hosts hard rockers Bobaflex with Royal Bliss and Oceans Divide. The big show of the night, however, is Winter Jam at BOK Center, featuring Newsboys, David Crowder Band, Kutless, Red, KJ-52 and more for only $10 at the door and a full night of Christian music.
Sunday, Feb. 20's highlights are split between Swans at The Marquee and Broken Social Scene (with Zeus) at Cain's Ballroom.
Finally, the week wraps up on Wednesday, Feb. 23 with Civil Twilight at Bob's with openers Mother/Father and Eyes Around and the return of Tom Skinner's Science Project to The Blue Rose Café.
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