Tommy Rivers has a classic '70s Brit-rock look. With his elfin countenance and his shoulder-length hair, he could easily pass for one of the Small Faces, some long-forgotten Stones keyboardist or perhaps Mott the Hoople's fill-in bass player.
His singing voice is spare and heart-wrenching, capable of everything from high T. Rex harmonies to a Ringo-like growl. He sings sweetly and with passion, in the grand tradition of cigarette-rough vocalists such as Rod Stewart, Ian Hunter and Eric Clapton. Everything about Rivers gives you the impression he's a future one-hit wonder nearing the end of his search for the elusive hit.
The new Tommy Rivers & the Raw Ramps may well provide his hit -- perhaps even more than one. A musical tapestry interwoven with references to everything from Luis Bunuel to Peter Sellers, the album opens with "Normal Town," a swirling piece of Beatlesque psychedelia that wouldn't have seemed out of place on Sgt. Pepper's. The album proceeds grandly through a series of two-minute pop diamonds such as "Paradise," a beautiful rollicking number about a memorable blonde, before concluding with the stomping power ballads "Look Your Devil in the Eye" and "Try'n Like a Fool," which could almost pass for the two sides of a Some Girls-era Stones single.
Every track seems to beg the questions: Where the hell has he been? And why has this record, which carries a 1998 copyright, been on ice for four years?
"I guess you could call it a comeback," says Rivers, shaking his head. "I've been out of the loop for a while."
Longtime Atlantans recall that Rivers was once very much in the loop, from his early folkie days -- mimicking Paul Simon at a Grady High School talent contest -- to his discovery of Zeppelin and deciding to go electric; from his tenure with Boston's hard-rocking Robo to that fateful visit home (inspired by a broken car heater in a chilly Massachusetts winter) when he met guitarist Rick Richards.
The first time Rivers saw him, Richards was playing electric slide on a translucent Dan Armstrong guitar exactly like the one Keith Richards (no relation, except in spirit) played at Altamont. At the time, Rivers' own arsenal included a scorchingly powerful 100-watt amp he'd bought from J. Geils before leaving Boston. "People used to ask me how I got my sound," he recalls, "because I didn't use effects pedals. I gave a sort of Spinal Tap answer: I turn it up to 10."
Together, Rivers and Richards formed the Desperate Angels. Their well-attended rehearsals created such a buzz that the band drew crowds from the first show forward, enjoying a solid two-year run and becoming part of the '80s-era scene at Hedgen's in Buckhead. Richards later founded the band that eventually became the Georgia Satellites, while Rivers continued performing with various editions of the Tommy Rivers Band and with Michelle Malone's backup group, fortuitously named Drag the River.
As the responsibilities of adulthood loomed, Rivers began to make less time for live performance, though he continued to write songs and has served for seven years as a partner in a successful rehearsal complex, renting practice spaces to bands such as the White Lights, the Woggles, the Changelings and various Moodswing Records acts. By coincidence, it was Moodswing's Kip Thomas and Bruce Bohannon, whom he met at the rehearsal space and Georgia Tech ballgames, who "really lit the fire" for Rivers to get back in the scene. Rivers also credits hardworking local musician Buffi Aguero (White Lights, Subsonics) as a "major inspirational force" in urging him to put his music out again.
"With their encouragement," he says, "I've got the record out at last and am already recording new product."
Rivers is particularly pumped about this week's CD release party.
"I've been to a lot of CD release shows," he says. "You go with a lot of expectations, and they wind up being kind of lugubrious. But I've put the personnel in place -- including Tom Laubenthal on drums -- and we're truly gonna have some surprises, both in terms of guests and songs. I'm really excited about this and, more than anything, about getting back out and playing again."