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Rock Radio (and Rock Romano) Redux

"Every time I think I'm out, they pull me right back in." So said The Sopranos' Silvio Dante, channeling Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III. You'll remember that Dante was talking about leaving the Mafia, and while Racket isn't mobbed up, these days he feels trapped in much the same way, boxed in, interned in a camp. He wants to write about something other than local radio, but shit just keeps happening. And somehow -- despite all the changes -- things never seem to get that much better.

Here's the past year in a nutshell: We lost business talk, hard rock, classical and standards stations and gained one each of hot talk, Latin rap/reggaetón, Mexican regional and sports talk channels. And late last month came the newest development. Hot 97.5, an R&B outlet that managed to outbland Majic 102, bit the dust, and out of the ashes came Rock 97.5, Houston's not-that-long-awaited replacement for Rock 101.

KLOL's demise was met with much gnashing of teeth from the city's aging rock population, who demonstrated, bitched online and petitioned Clear Channel to have the station returned to the airwaves. All of which worked about as well as you might expect.

Rumors of rock's return roiled awhile, and then, into the breach stepped Clear Channel competitor Cumulus, who hired former KLOL and Buzz program director Pat Fant and announced that rock was back. On January 27 at 11 a.m., a montage of classics with "rock" in the title -- you know the tunes, the ones by AC/DC, the Scorpions and the Stones -- heralded rock's new dawn on the dial.

And what form would rock take this time? More important, given 97.5's pathetically feeble transmitter, would anybody be able to hear it?

I'll get to the former in a second. As for the latter, in my daily routine -- I live near Rice and work downtown -- I have severe problems hearing this station. The signal is static-ridden; it sounds as if it's being broadcast from Beaumont or something. (As it happens, it more or less is -- the station's transmitter is out in Willis, though it's rumored to be moving to La Porte soon.) Whenever I tune in, I have to jostle my jambox around my desk to maximize reception, and sometimes even leave my hand on it, faith-healer-style, to act as an extended antenna. And it still doesn't come in very clearly.

Now, for the music. Instead of analyzing playlists posted on the Web, I tuned in for an hour or so on the afternoon of February 1. I gave them 20 tunes to win me or lose me. Here's what I heard:

Nine songs you can hear on the Arrow just about any old time. These included Boston's "Don't Look Back," Pink Floyd's "Run Like Hell," Rush's "Limelight," ZZ Top's "Legs," Zep's "Black Dog" and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." There was also Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way," which you can already hear on not just the Arrow, but also the Mix and the Buzz, and U2's "With or Without You," which by municipal ordinance is mandated to be playing somewhere on Houston's dial at all times -- even when U2 has a blockbuster new album out. Rock 97.5 also played "Children of the Sun" by that guy who sings it, and I must confess it's now officially a new old guilty pleasure of mine. (And yes, people of the earth, I know it was by Billy Thorpe, so don't send me that e-mail.)

Three songs you can hear on the Buzz just about any old time. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was by far the best of a sorry bunch that also included Alter Bridge's "Open Your Eyes" and Nickelback's "Never Again." (And Chad Kroeger -- if I ever have to hear that last one again, kickin' your ass would be a pleasure.)

Three songs you used to hear on KLOL all the time. These were "Slither" by Velvet Revolver, "Would?" by Alice in Chains and Judas Priest's "You've Got Another Thing Coming."

And, the five songs that establish the station's identity, at least for now. Rock 97.5 also played "N.I.B." by Black Sabbath, "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC and "Top of the World" by Van Halen. These are somewhat promising selections -- they at least have the virtue of not being utterly and completely overplayed. Rock 97.5 seems to have gotten the fact that people are burned out on the likes of "Paranoid," "Back in Black" and "Jump," and seems to recognize that its fans are savvy enough to know more than just the smash-hit singles. Also, "Alive" by Kenny Wayne Shepherd was tossed out as a sop to the Stevie Ray-lovin' bluez dawgz, and somehow the Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" slipped into this rough-and-rowdy company.

 

And so we come to the verdict. Right now, I'll give their transmitter a solid D. I'll give their music a C-plus for the moment, but I will say this: It's already shaking up the Buzz and the Arrow, even if their method of fighting back is to declare over and over again that nobody will out-AC/DC or out-Zep them -- expect an all-out war, or, if you will, a Battle of Evermore Zep and AC/DC.

And all of those stations are focused on the past, except for the Buzz, which might as well be, for as little relevance as it has. So anyway, rock is all but covered. Now all we need is something new, something exciting, something that will make what few tourists trickle our way and turn on their radios think this place is something other than a cultural backwater. If only the Point would flip to that blend I've been touting -- that Franz Ferdinand-Kanye West-Modest Mouse-Roots-Interpol-OutKast-'80s alternative-classic rap thingy -- maybe then I'd be able to move on from writing these columns, the Point wouldn't ever have to play "Tainted Love" again, and a new format would be born, one the whole entire world could be proud of.

But hell, who am I kidding? That seems about as likely as "Big Pussy" Bompensiero walking off Tony Soprano's yacht alive. Rock the Man, Rock the Myth, Rock the Legend

Twenty years ago, the corner of Heights and Washington was the epicenter of the Houston live music scene -- a thriving corner of four or five clubs, where thousands flocked every weekend to boogie to the blues, groove to jazz and two-step to country that hailed from here in town and all over the world. In one weekend on that corner, you could see Miss Molly and the Passions and B.B. King, Son Seals and the Dishes.

Those days are gone now -- Washington may still be the city's avenue of rock dreams, but Rockefeller's, Club Hey Hey and the Satellite are no more, and Cosmos and Hickory Hollow are all that remain.

Most of the players who once packed those clubs are still in town and still playing, and many of them recently have acquired second winds. One such is Herschel Berry, who has been playing out more with his new band, which his lead guitarist, Rock Romano, describes as a "rockin' four-piece Gulf Coast rockabilly band, sort of like the Who meets Elvis Costello with a Texas edge."

Another is Romano himself, who not only was one of Berry's original Natives but also led his own band -- Dr. Rockit and the Sisters of Mercy -- in the '80s. Dr. Rockit was one of the top-tier Gulf Coast party bands of the era, a nationally touring act that headlined the Houston Festival for three straight years. "It was a really rockin' band, a four-piece blues band with two girls that really rocked out," Romano says from the recording studio he has owned and operated for 20 years. "Nobody ever left once we hit a note. The men loved the girls, and the people who loved the blues dug what we did musically. We were like the Blasters on steroids. Bo Diddley still remembers me -- he loved the band so much. I saw him five years after we opened for him and he had pictures of us in his pack backstage at Rockefeller's. He said, 'I've been saving these for you, Doc.' And I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, this is Bo Diddley telling me this.' It was one of the greatest moments of my life, to have Bo Diddley show me photographs of my band that he took!"

Exactly 20 years ago, Sisters of Mercy Lisa Williams and Cindy Thrall left the band. "We were getting up there when we finally split apart," says Romano. "It was like the Commitments -- they were our paradigm for self-destruction."

Last year the band reunited for the Urban Animals 25th anniversary party, and the show was a huge success, drawing about 700 people to Fitzgerald's. This time around Romano wants to test the waters without the Urban Animals, and he wants to celebrate his 60th birthday in style. Ergo the Heart and Soul Birthday Ball on Valentine's Day at Fitz's, which will feature Dr. Rockit and the Sisters of Mercy and opening act Romeo Dogs. Special guests include Herschel Berry, Tommie Lee Bradley, Big Al Bettis, Tommy Dardar, Sean Walters, Guy Schwartz, Wally Shannon, Trudy Lynn and Marie English, with more expected.

"The snowball has gotten so big that Sara has moved it upstairs," says Romano, who has stayed sharp performing with Bettis, Berry and the Hightailers during Dr. Rockit's hiatus. "It's really a kick in the ass to have this band back together."


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