When Daniel Romano released Modern Pressure earlier this year I phoned my local record emporium to ask if they had it in stock. Sister Ray has been in Soho for decades and have furnished me with countless new independent releases. “Never heard of him,” was the snotty reply. “What is he?” Well, in fairness, this was a reasonable question as record shops like to file goods in easy-to-manage categories but not an easy one to answer. I muttered something about he used to be country (which I knew was gonna conjure hideous visions in the already dismissive mind of said employee. I know it’s offensive to use the C-word in polite company but stay with me, think of Hank, Merle, Gram) but is now more, er, rocky. Tap-tap-tap into his little computer and “Did he have an album called Mosey?” Yeah, that’s him. “Right. I can see why we’re not stocking him, we didn’t sell a single copy of that.” Oh.
I share this story, dear reader, so you don’t feel bad if Daniel Romano isn’t as familiar a name around your family dinner table as it is mine. If “hip” London record shops are largely ignorant to his oeuvre, and if on a Saturday night in the West End one can rock up to pay a mere ten quid on the door to witness his act in the intimate surroundings of the Borderline, then a six-page feature in Mojo magazine and an appearance on Later With Jools Holland are still , unjustly, some way off.
A brief history: From Welland, Ontario, Romano was in Canadian punk band Attack In Black (I still haven’t listened to them), and has released eight albums since 2009. He began on a folky-country path, went full-on pedal steel and fiddle country, then swerved into a sprawling hotchpotch of styles he calls “Mosey”, incorporating elements of Stonesy rock, Americana, new wave, psychedelia, piano ballads, a mariachi namecheck to Valerie Leon, strings, horns and, if that wasn’t enough, Romano also trades under Ancient Shapes, his punk offshoot. Oh, and he plays almost everything on his records, he’s a talented artist, a leather tooler and can no doubt replace the steering column in a ’57 Chevy while reciting Les Fleurs du mal by Baudelaire.
Last year I saw him play two gigs in one night. Joined by a second guitarist, they sat on stools and played a breath-taking acoustic set where you could’ve heard a pin drop, then a couple of hours later across town a rock and roll set with almost every song from an album nobody had heard. For punters (like me) expecting pedal-steel weepers it was audacious and brass-necked. Brilliantly so. Newport ’65 had nothing on this.
Which moves us along the dictionary to the D-word. As well as the obvious musical influences, from Freewheelin’ to Highway 61 Revisited to Street Legal, Romano’s willingness to change horses midstream, to defy expectation, to change image (he’s had more looks than Carlos The Jackal, and currently appears to be wearing a pair of his old sunglasses), and for his songs to remain living entities in that can be played in a variety of ways, makes him comparable to Bob Dylan. As a Dylan completist that’s not something I’d say lightly. A squiz at YouTube will throw up loads of different versions of songs and, such is Romano’s prolific nature, loads of unreleased songs as his two labels can’t kept pace. For example, ‘Fearless Death Tomorrow’, released on the Ancient Shapes album as a dirty punk thrash is, months later, played acoustically with tinkling piano and double bass.
The Borderline gig last weekend was his last show of the year and executed with the passion of the last show of his life. Opening with “Modern Pressure”, in which Romano unleashed a blood curdling primal scream, he was in scarily blistering form. Not one for looking back, the set was mostly tracks released in little more than a year, yet the manner they were performed was astounding. The album Modern Pressure has a springy, elasticated feel, yet here they were played as heavy, tight rockers with a furious intensity peak Clash or White Stripes might’ve managed. It felt like a skin-shedding, cathartic exercise with songs from the latest album (‘Sucking The Old World Dry’, ‘Impossible Dream’, ‘When I Learned Your Name’ etc), and a few from Mosey including a spirit-raising ‘Dead Medium’, all given a similar treatment. ‘(Gone Is) A Quarry of Stone’ was transformed from a mournful ballad into a terrifying exorcism complete with a guitar solo, effortlessly tossed in, that made my eyes widen and brow arch in admiration. The foot was taken off the gas fleetingly. ‘Roya’, is the most beautiful song of 2017, and in a rare delve into the past (2013 is several Romano lifetimes ago) the tear jerking ‘A New Love (Can Be Found)’ sent shivers down the spine.
Billed as Daniel Romano and Jazz Police (his band featured bass, drums and Farfisa organ), there was zero jazz in a pulverising set (no chat, nary a pause), but should Romano one day pull a trumpet out of his backside to play a few Chet Baker numbers no one will die of shock. Where he’s heading next is a fun game to play and one new song had a 60s garage vibe which then segued into the final verse of The Who’s ‘My Generation’. Perhaps a cheesy choice but the power was up there with anything those Shepherd’s Bush geezers ever did and was about as far from a Porter Wagoner cover Romano could’ve found.
It’s difficult to gage how successful he is back home in Canada, and I’d love to know the reaction of purist country fans to recent developments, but the UK needs to wake up to the mastery of Daniel Romano. As the master of all trades and jack of none, the man is a damn genius.
Thanks to Michelle Raison for the photos and thanks to Daniel for allowing us to gate crash his dressing room. A few faces of Daniel Romano below. Enjoy.