It was February, a week after Gov-Fest, and I ‘discovered’ a little festival in the far north reaches of Plant City FL at a place called All World Acres. As I drove in, I had the sensation I’d been here before, and it turns out I had been to ZenFest before, several years ago. I was going because I wanted to see Orchid Theory perform again.
I like festivals, because I get to ‘discover’ bands I know little or nothing about. That was certainly the case at ZenFest, and finally we got to the last band (for me) for the evening. At the time, I wrote this:
“I can’t count how many times I was planning to see Row Jomah, only to have the plan fall through. Finally! Leader Joe Roma (get it?) sings and plays acoustic guitar, fronting a fine quartet. I confess I was tiring. I thought, Well, if they’re not so good, I’ll leave early.
They were great. And in the half dozen times I have seen them since, Row Jomah, like every other band on the scene, has been raising their game, finding a new gear, playing with great fire and intensity.
Row Jomah is a five-piece group from Clearwater, FL. Row Jomah’s lineup is: Jason Berlin, bass; Dylan Chee-A-Tow, drums; Austin Llewellyn, keys; Joe Roma, acoustic guitar and vocal; Melbourne Walsh, electric guitar.
Joe Roma describes how the band came into existence:
“Row Jomah came together somewhat uniquely for our local scene. Dylan and Joe worked together in the now-defunct band On Carlton Row. In January 2013, Joe started joining Dylan at the Dunedin Brewery Wednesday Night Open Mic, where he’d been playing drums weekly for a year or more. Within a few months, Melbourne Walsh joined to work on some songs for Wednesday nights. The additions of Austin Llewellyn, another staple at the Open Mic, and Jason Berlin, who played with Melbourne in the group Sands of Isis, on keys and drums brought Row Jomah to our first major gig, opening for Dunedin band One Sun at the Dunedin Brewery on Nov. 1, 2013.
Followed up by gigs at other Pinellas venues and a return with Currentz to the Dunedin Brewery in January 2014, Row Jomah steadily built up a rotation of local shows around the Tampa Bay area. We quickly became known as a band who played mostly originals and a few unique cover songs; not necessarily covers you would hear all the time, but covers we really liked, such as “It’s Your Thing,” “Hold the Line” and “Cortez the Killer.”
Row Jomah released our first studio album, an EP, on Nov. 20, 2014, at The Amsterdam in St. Petersburg. Playing for a full house with Dylan Cowles and the Crowknees, we received over $200 in donations for an EP we were giving away for free.
It was in 2015 that we really hit our stride. We played our first full-fledged festival, Gov-Fest, in February, to be followed by ZenFest (also in February), Orange Blossom Jamboree (May) and The Great Outdoors Jam (July). In June, Row Jomah released our first full-length album, Cat People!, to a raucous crowd at The Dunedin Brewery with Dunedin-based band Between Bluffs. As 2015 continues we have some very high-profile shows (many of which we can’t yet announce!) and will be releasing another EP in October to get a little more Row Jomah music out on the market!”
One of those shows was a great billing July 24th of Row Jomah, Leisure Chief, and Serotonic. This turned out to be a rousing success in spite of the miserable weather outside: the Ringside Cafe was the perfect venue for this, with sound run by the master, Funky D. Row Jonah turned in an excellent set, as did both other bands. Near the end of Serotonic’s set, with Keegan Matthews and Nick Bodgon of Leisure Chief sitting in, Joe came on stage to sing the Dave Matthews Band song “#41.” It was a great night.
At the recent Great Outdoors Jam, I joked that perhaps Kenny Blair, the festival’s organizer, had written memos to the bands for the pre-party to start off slowly so that everybody could ease into the four-day festival, but then he forgot to send the memos. I wrote:
“Maybe Kenny was thinking these groups should, you know, just lay down a bunt or something. For certain, Row Jomah never got the memo. [They were the first band on the first day.] They came out swinging for the fences like it was home run derby time. This was a monster set. Everybody was on fire, but nobody more so than Dylan Chee-A-Tow on drums. During the third song, Bryan Edward walked by and verbalized what I was thinking (I’m going to make him write!): “This is one of the best drummers on our scene!”
A nasty jam ensued with Melbourne Walsh blistering on guitar, and it worked its way into “Tell Me.” At the end of “Cat People,” another dude ran up to the stage and yelled (about Dylan, cleaned up for prime time): “That motherF’er is a motherF’er!” There was no disagreement anywhere. They closed the set with “Funk,” and Blair’s plan was down the port-a-potty.”
Joe talks about the band name and more:
“We played for several months without a name, and people started taking to calling us the ‘Joe Roma Group.’ I could think of almost nothing more indecent than to lump such a talented group of artists under my name, so we worked diligently to find an actual name. After a few weeks we had nothing until Dylan’s roommate, an amazing piano player in his own right named Jens Sweeting, said ‘Why don’t you just switch the first letters of Joe’s name?’ With a little creative spelling, Row Jomah was born.”
“My main musical influences were ‘90s bands like Dave Matthews Band and Guster and funky groovy acts of the ‘70s. I love a lot of ‘80s pop music as well. I loved D’Angelo and Black Star, people I rediscovered when Dylan would play them when I was around. I love interesting, thought-provoking lyrics over music that makes you want to dance. When I write, I want to write a song that makes you want to dance but doesn’t make you tune out and just listen to the groove. I think the perfect example is a song from our album called ‘Sugar Sweet.’ The verse is in 6/4 and chorus in 4/4, so it has a pretty cool feel, but the real magic is in how Austin and Mel complement the vocal melodies while Dylan, Jason and I hold down the rhythm. It’s definitely one of my favorite songs.”
Drummer Dylan Chee-A-Tow described his avenue to Row Jomah:
“I started listening to music from my parent’s classic rock CDs. As I got older I got more into jazz and more music in general and will listen to anything I can get my hands on that I liked, whether it be a Latin, hip hop or R & B.”
“If someone was describing my drumming to someone, I’d want them to say that I’m a drummer that keeps a nice groove but can push the boundaries a little bit, to be kind of in between doing difficult stuff and keeping a groove. It usually takes a little while to come up with a drum beat. I will have a general idea of what I want to do, but it will get better as we play it out more.”
“I like playing with Row Jomah because of how experimental the band’s sound is. We have our arrangements, but sometimes it’s nice because it can turn into an ‘anything goes’ situation. We can cross so many styles in one song because of the influences that each member has had by different genres of music. Sometimes we will do a song and during the solo section have a completely different feel from what we did in the same solo section at our last gig.”
Melbourne Walsh is an excellent guitar player and great contributor to the band’s sound. He said:
“I started off listening to your classic rock classics: Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the like. As I got older I started listening to Jeff Beck, Allan Holdsworth, John Scofield.”
“In high school while living in Marathon, FL I was in a band called Of Age, and we played Fantasy Fest in Key West in front of thousands of people. Up in Tampa Bay, I was in a group called Sands of Isis with Jason on drums, but we didn’t get to play out much because Jason was still in high school and couldn’t come out to jams that often.”
“A big reason I like playing in Row Jomah is because we are all friends and hang out. I enjoy the music and love the challenge of writing music for the songs. I will start with arpeggios and then just play with it until the sound I’m looking for falls into place.”
“Austin and I have never sat down and planned our changes except in practice. We just play the changes and find the voicings and find notes to fill things in. When it sounds good, it sounds good.”
Several August dates
Aug. 2 – Skipper’s Smokehouse w/ Holey Miss Moley & Ragged Old Souls
Aug. 15 – Jenkins Law-Lapalooza @ Pair O’Dice Brewing, Clearwater, FL w/ NoNeed
Aug. 21 – Ale and the Witch, St. Petersburg, FL.
Aug. 29 – Keepin’ D Funky Fundraiser, The Amsterdam, St. Petersburg, FL w/Cope, Holey Miss Moley, Ajeva, The Bath Salt Zombies and more!
Keepin’ D Funky is an all-day fundraiser sponsored by The Amsterdam to benefit Funky D, Darryl Quesenberry. This is a great event, although the community can never repay D for all that he has done for the St. Petersburg and Florida musical communities. In addition to the great music, there will a raffle with a lot of great prizes, including Bean Spence’s original art for a CopE album cover and tickets to Hulaween.
Finally, let’s explore this excellent new album from Row Jonah titled Cat People! The first thing you need to know is that the title track is NOT on the album, even though it is the band’s usual closer. Joe acknowledged same:
“Haha. Funny story. We never intended for the song Cat People to be on the album, but we loved the name so much we used it anyway.” It might just appear on an EP at some point; you never know!
Before a track-by-track analysis, here is some general information. All songs were written by Joe Roma. Every song is 100% a team effort from the quintet. Joe mentioned earlier the respect he has for his bandmates as “such a talented group of artists.” That is abundantly evident on all eight tracks. This is truly an excellent band, and the recording itself is superb, done by Matt DeSear at Audio Images in Bradenton. Vinny Svoboda, the bass player for Displace, did the mixing and mastering at his VATS Productions in Tampa.
The opening song, “Tell Me,” starts as a number of Row Jomah songs do, with Joe’s acoustic guitar. The band falls in, with Austin Llewellyn on organ. And then Joe sings. When you talk to Joe, he is the most soft-spoken man. When he hits the stage, a different persona emerges. He is emotive, expressive, evocative. He sings a beautiful falsetto and can roar. “Tell me what’s on your mind; I’ll let you in on what’s going on in mine,” he sings. It is, Joe says, a song about being there for a woman in need.
“Couldn’t I Be With You” is a “breakup song for a guy who’s not quite ready to let go.” The groove is strong with this one, perhaps my favorite for the musical vamp that the band builds. Dylan Chee-A-Tow’s drums and cymbals work underneath Mel Walsh’s beautiful guitar figure and Austin’s electric piano. It’s a plaintive expression at first, but it unfolds into “Couldn’t you let me in on what you’ve got going on?” Jason Berlin’s bass line carries the tune, and Austin takes a lovely piano solo.
Next is a person love anthem by Joe titled “Funk:” “Baby you know it’s true, I’ll change the world for you. Break it right down and build it back up to the top.” Two musical notes of interest on a song called “Funk:” Austin plays clavinet, and Joe’s acoustic guitar is heard throughout the tune; Mel doesn’t come in until near the end. Joe’s imagery is great: “On a starry night, the wind blows cool, and the moon shines bright.”
Joe says “Choke” is a love song of a different sort. We’ll take his advice and let you use your imagination. This a great rock vamp, with Dylan’s drums showcased several times, another nice piano solo, and a quick “Pop Goes the Weasel” tease.
“Sugar Sweet” is a tune with interesting time changes, as Joe mentioned earlier. His acoustic guitar is the primary instrument until the first chorus. Then piano intertwines with guitar. He notes that it is “a real love song. It’s about that special kind of love where even when someone is gone they’ll always be on your mind.” You believe him when he sings: “What you got, it’s more than most. What you got could save the world. So let me down; it’s over now.”
“Shudder” is about “changing the world, even you just want to run and hide.” It relates an unhappy realization that things did not get better when he grew up, as had been suggested, if not promised. It is a very poignant song, and the music envelopes it perfectly. After a brief acoustic guitar intro, Mel comes in with a stinging lead. Later, he takes an excellent solo, with Jason and Dylan propelling him along. Just when it seems the song is fading to black, it snaps back for a great minute-and-a-half reprise.
Joe describes “Fire and Ice” as “about the paradoxical nature of god, and living life despite it.” OK. This song begins with a nice piano intro, then acoustic guitar, then Mel on electric, and finally the rhythm section. Austin has a great organ solo here, and then Mel blisters another solo. Suddenly, the song shoves down into overdrive, and then that finds yet another gear, with Mel firing away, before it slows itself down and back to the head: “Pick me up from the cold, cold ground. Dust me off, I’m finally found.”
“Outhouse” apparently was primarily an attempt to include as many time changes as possible. The lyrics are less significant, he says, “though generally about loss and adversity.” Alrighty then. Mel’s guitar lead on this is probably my favorite on the album. He plays such clean, sparse lines. He can chunk and chord, for certain, but this is hot. After the first two stanzas, there is a great instrumental break with piano and rhythm again. It too almost fades out before heading back to the head on last time.
And then the title track is… right, not on Cat People! The album is a fine accomplishment for this young quintet with great things in store for them ahead.