The Romantics Pay Tribute

By Kevin Gibson

A warm, clear night on the Louisville waterfront gave '80s hitmakers the Romantics a good platform to test out a couple of new songs - and a whole lot of old ones.

The Romantics, who scored a pair of Top 40 hits in 1984 with "Talking in Your Sleep" and "One in a Million" and created a pop-culture mainstay in "What I Like About You," headlined the June 8 Rockin' at Riverpoints concert before a crowd consisting of a few hardcore fans and a lot of curious onlookers.

On the cusp of a new album (expect it later this year), the leather-clad quartet offered "When the Angels (Hear Me Calling)," "6149" and "Devil in Me" from their recent compositions. The Detroit quartet also touched their catalog, offering the aforementioned hits plus a couple each from its "In Heat," "National Breakout" and self-titled LPs.

But the Romantics, who hadn't played Louisville in nearly eight years, spent almost as much time on a batch of well-chosen covers. Two of those, it bears noting, are slated for inclusion on the new album: One is a high-octane revival of the Kinks' "I Need You," and the other is "Midnight to 6 Man," originally recorded by an under-appreciated British blues-rock band called the Pretty Things. (The Romantics also performed "Come See Me," a Pretty Things cover the band has been playing off and on since 1985, and "She's Got Everything," a Kinks song that was covered on the Romantics' first album back in 1979.)

Toss in John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" and an enthusiastic encore that featured Bo Diddley's "Roadrunner" and "Cadillac," and what the crowd got was less a feeling of where the Romantics are headed but rather a better idea of where they are coming from.

After the show, Romantics lead vocalist Wally Palmar shared a sneak peek at a demo copy of the new CD. The working title, In the Shadow of Hastings Street, is a tribute in itself to a bygone era that was partially responsible for the Romantics' existence in the first place.

Hastings Street, Palmar explained, was the main entertainment strip in Detroit's Black Bottom, an area mostly inhabited by black factory workers. Boosted in part by illegal clubs known as blind pigs, hundreds of bars sprang up along Hastings Street in the 1920s, which became a bustling area of activity and the birthplace of a serious Detroit blues scene.

Blues legends like Eddie "Guitar" Burns, Hooker and many more were products of that scene, along with untold numbers of Motown session artists in the later years. Hastings Street eventually was leveled to make way for Interstate 75, but not before Hooker and Motown Records immortalized it.

"A lot of that stuff was our main influence," said Palmar. "We just want to acknowledge the fact that it was there."

The new tunes slated for In the Shadow confirm the intent. "6149" is a harmonica-blues steamroller that would have made Washboard Willie proud, and several of the other new songs (some of which can be previewed on the Romantics' Web site at www.romanticsdetroit.com) are driven by the same blues undercurrent that drives the band itself.

As for a release date for the disc, which is being co-produced by Mark and Jeff Bass (who also produced Eminem's Grammy-winning 2000 album, Slim Shady) and has been in the works for several years, Palmar said the band doesn't want to rush anything. The art isn't quite ready and distribution is still in the works.

"We've got a couple things up our sleeves," he said. "We just want to make sure everything is taken care of and that everything is in place."

The Bass boys' involvement, meanwhile, was a fortunate accident. "We've known them for 15 years," Palmar said. "We've been friends for the longest time. They were in the studio when we were finishing up the album and we weren't real happy with the way some of the songs were turning out. They said, 'Let us have a crack at it.'"

The Romantics liked what the fill-in producers did with "I Need You" and another song called "Good Thing," so more tunes may be turned over to the duo to see if further improvements can be made.

Palmar said the album will contain twelve songs, featuring core band members Mike Skill (bass and guitars), Coz Canler (guitars) and himself. The album also has contributions from Clem Burke of Blondie fame (who is the Romantics' drummer these days); Jimmy Marinos, the band's original drummer, and Johnny Bee, who played drums in Mitch Ryder's Detroit Wheels in the 1960s and has occasionally filled in with the Romantics.

Johnny Edwards' Buster Brown preceded the headliner, with Edwards showing plenty of enthusiasm and energy now that he's back in Louisville. Keep your eyes on this act. The Bluegills opened the show with a set of alt-pop covers.