Music News

Supreme Beings

Virtuosic guitarist/singer-songwriter Adrian Romero grew up as a classical-music prodigy. So why has he placed this style on the back burner in order to roam the pastures of pop music alongside his band, Love Supreme? He shrugs off the question with a caustic comment: "Denver isn't really concerned with that kind of shit right now. We're all about sports and the great outdoors." But the truth is more complicated than that. Romero may have learned his licks from the masters, but a culturally rich background and his love of FM radio taught him how to employ them.

An irrepressible personality who can say more interesting things in five minutes than most people manage all year, Romero is a firm believer in the power of formative experiences. "As a child in Santa Fe, I was lucky enough to grow up around a large variety of music," he notes. "We had the internationally famous opera house, flamenco concerts, mariachi musicians, Native American festivals, and, of course, we had blues and rock bands. I also lived in La Paz, Bolivia, when I was seven, where I heard a lot of Peruvian music--and on the way back up to the States, I got to watch people tango in Argentina. My experience growing up was the opposite of that maxim 'Give me three chords and the truth.' I think the truth has a lot more chords than that."

As a player, Romero initially gravitated toward classical music, a genre that remains close to him. As he puts it, "I've played it since I was a kid. But I don't play it because I want to be sophisticated; I play the shit because I like it." His fondness for the form deepened thanks to Ricardo Iznaola, a guitar coach at the University of Denver who shared his knowledge and skill with Romero. "That man is a motherfucker on the guitar," he gushes. "It's like having a Horowitz or a Heifetz in town. Nobody around here knows that, of course. But anyway, Ricardo was always telling me about the 'holy rage,' and his technique incorporated a certain amount of musical violence. He taught me a lot about the physiological technique of playing guitar, but he also told me that sometimes you just have to bang the damn thing."

Love Supreme, which includes drummer Darrin Johnson, bassist Ron Voller and cellist Hannah Alkire, gives Romero an excellent forum from which to spread this wisdom. The combo, which is set to appear January 29 at Inferno in Steamboat Springs and February 7 at the Market Street Lounge, is engaging in part because all of its performances are so different. Romero pours his wealth of charisma and intelligence into his songs, which often have a spontaneous feel that's in tune with the group's name--a reference to one of jazz legend John Coltrane's most famous compositions. But despite the complicated instrumental interaction that characterizes Love Supreme, its sound is deceptively easygoing and fits in well with the efforts of other artists in the New West's blossoming rock scene.

Radio Free Cola, a 1996 disc by the outfit, is an example of this blend of the complex and the accessible. According to Romero, most albums consist of a handful of tracks that constitute variations on the same theme. To avoid falling into this trap, he conceived Cola as the CD equivalent of a mixed tape, with all twenty numbers embracing different styles in an effort to grab and hold one's interest. The results are exceedingly eclectic. Crafty numbers such as the Johnny Cash-like "Angst in My Pants" and the pop-friendly "Karaoke Moments" squeeze into the gap between the heavy metal of "Easter Undertaker" and the extended soloing that marks "Come Along." Elsewhere, "Mudshark" juxtaposes a Bowie-esque delivery with murky guitar lines; "Diamonds," a catchy bid for a hit single, finds previous Love Supreme cellist Kevin Johnson engaging in an Appalachian jam; "Karl Malden" opens up a so-called "cop suite" with an almost electronic-sounding bass throb, siren samples and Seventies wah-wah effects; and "Trophies" shows off the kind of catchy-as-hell vocal riff with which the platter is littered.

The diversity of Radio Free Cola would exhaust the creativity of most artists, but Romero is not most artists. He maintains a rigorous daily writing schedule and frequently begets works that don't fit into Love Supreme's framework. For example, he received the Best Composition award last year from the Colorado Council of the Arts for a classical guitar piece he performed with hand drummer Bataki Cambrelen, a former associate of the late jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Also in 1997, he toured with the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance ensemble and got the opportunity to collaborate with New York choreographer Dianne McIntyre, who specializes in combining improvisational jazz and dance. "What was wonderful about that experience was working with Dianne," Romero allows. "She usually works with Don Pullen [who died in 1995], Cecil Taylor and Max Roach, Charlie Parker's drummer. I mean, these people are her peers, and she was hip on my playing; she was really into it. To have the enthusiasm and support of someone like Dianne, who is used to working with that caliber of talent, was a very inspiring and humbling experience."

Romero is not a genius in all fields. His lyrics are ambitious, especially when they're espousing a why-can't-we-all-live together philosophy or utilizing beautifully absurd metaphors to describe a lover, but his vocabulary and structures sometimes suggest a need for intermediate poetry classes. However, his singing, which is moody, crunchy, bluesy and packed with intent, more than compensates for this weakness. So, too, does his peerless playing, which nudges his bandmates into unexplored territory without leaving the casual listener behind.

If there's a contradiction in this goal, Romero doesn't see it. "I have no problem with easy, simple tunes," he insists. "Like 'Sweet Leaf,' by Black Sabbath, or the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, for that matter; it doesn't get any simpler than that. What it really gets down to is content. It's not about style. Style is a consequence of time and place."

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Kelly Lemieux