If you think it's easy being in a band, remember the Tomatoes. In 2003 as the Joneses, they put out their first album, Revolution Blues, then promptly lost two of the three founding members. When singer-bassist Will Burdette and guitarist George Ortolano talked about taking the act on the road and doing it full time, members John Goehring and Scott Thompson bailed. "Johnny went and did his law thing, and Scott did the coaching thing," Ortolano says, sitting with Burdette over an afternoon coffee.
With the Joneses in tatters, Burdette and Ortolano changed the band's name, first to Tomato, then the Tomatoes, and briefly supported Revolution Blues on the road, but the name issue proved too confusing. The new The Rise and Fall of the Tomatoes is the first official Tomatoes release, and it's a muscular take on '70s British punk, a direction familiar to fans of the Joneses. Burdette's songs have a life-during-wartime feel, envisioning "us-vs.-them" scenarios and singing lines like "The hands that plan your future / are the hands that hold you down" with complete conviction.
The time between CDs tested how badly the band wanted to "make it" -- the sort of test that bands face every day. Hurricanes, scheduling challenges, and guitarist Scott Frilot quitting during the recording sessions delayed the new album. He had been into the band and excited by its future, but once he got married, Ortolano says, "He had a lot of things that kept him from going for it 100 percent."
As a three-piece with drummer Woody Dantagnan, the Tomatoes trekked across America last summer, living the rock 'n' roll adventure. They had a gig fall apart in San Diego, only to have another pop up on the beach that night, and had to pay to play on a five-band bill in Los Angeles -- "The club owner kept saying, You're playing on the fabulous Sunset Strip,' Burdette recalls -- and spent all the money they made on the tour when the band's heatless, radioless, AC-less '82 Ford Econoline van broke down in Minneapolis.
Then again, there were also high points. Dates in Atlanta, Chicago and Green Bay, Wisc., went well -- "People were thanking us for coming in Green Bay," Burdette says -- and San Antonio was particularly memorable. Playing a German social club that booked rock 'n' roll on the weekend to make a few extra bucks, the Tomatoes found themselves in front of an audience of Latino families, with everyone from grandmas to babies in the crowd. When someone mentioned the band was on its way to L.A., Ortolano says, "everybody wanted to take pictures with us, and they took posters off the wall and wanted us to sign them."
"The bartender got really trashed and kept us up all night with free beer from the time they shut the place down," Burdette continues. "The lights were off and we're still behind the bar drinking. We spent the night in the bar."
Even if you're not going to get as big as U2, if you have a band, you should have at least one story like that.
Gangsta rap suffers credibility issues as rappers boast of their criminal exploits with such similarity that you have to wonder if they did the same things or just watched the same movies. That's not C-Murder's problem on The Truest S*** I Ever Said (Koch). Recorded covertly while in a Jefferson Parish prison awaiting a second trial for second-degree murder, the situation certainly suggests the artist formerly known as Corey Miller can legitimately talk about crime and its consequences.
Perhaps as a function of recording in prison, C-Murder's vocals are spoken, lacking drama and gaining tension in the process. He sounds genuinely cold-blooded, and by avoiding the standard gangsta vocabulary, he seems to be thinking about his life. The conclusions he comes to and the way he gets there may be disturbing, but they're musically compelling.
An army of producers put the tracks together, KLC being the most effective on "My Life." A bass part played on a synthesizer isn't a series of notes as much as it's a drone that gently throbs. The sparseness augments the tension created by C-Murder's vocal. No other producer is as minimal, but only Akon's "Locked Up" steps on the drama, with a sliding jail door sound effect too obviously accompanying the title phrase.
It's interesting to think about the CD and its relationship to Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice. It's easy to say The Truest S*** I Ever Said doesn't compare, but that may be a function of Cleaver being safely a part of a romanticized past rather than a genuine evaluation of the two works. Only time will tell whether it might be a cliche, but since the gangsta persona is immediately confrontational in a way a black radical text 35 years in the past isn't, there's some truth in it.
Artists playing Jazz Fest who anticipate having new CDs in time for the festival need to send them to Gambit Weekly by Monday, March 28 if they'd like them considered for review. Send to: Music Editor, Gambit Weekly, 3923 Bienville St., New Orleans, LA 70119.
For reviews of CDs by Martha Wainwright, Michael Powers and Jason Miles among others, see Opening Act 2 online.