In the ghettos of New York, “rumble” means a street fight between rival gangs. In the suburbs of Orange County, however, “rumble” usually refers to an earthquake.
So the name Rumbletown, with its explosive, urban connotations, seems a peculiar choice for a band based in placid Orange County. But then the Garden Grove quartet’s leader, Vinnie James, is equally anomalous on the local music scene: a black, Harlem-born singer-songwriter with folk roots who sings raspy-throated, socially conscious mainstream rock in the Bruce Springsteen/John Cougar Mellencamp mold.
James’ name for the group, which plays today at Madame Wong’s West in Santa Monica and opens for Bonnie Raitt on Wednesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, stems directly from his upbringing in the ghettos of New York. That background becomes obvious in James’ quick, cynical wit and no-nonsense method of pursuing his musical goals.
During a group interview recently at their manager’s Garden Grove condominium, James did most of the talking for the band, made up of German-born guitarist Peter Schultz, bassist Kevin Goetz and drummer Craig Coenen.
Explaining the origin of the name, James said, “There was a place called Pleasantville on the outskirts of Atlantic City where in 1973 there were race riots between the Cross and the Saints gangs.
“At the time I happened to be in Jade East, a brother gang to the Cross, and we went to Pleasantville,” said James, who admits only to being in his “early 20s.” “When the press covered it, they couldn’t call it Pleasantville, so they called it ‘Rumbletown.’ It’s the most urban word I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Life has been considerably less dramatic for James since he moved to the West Coast in 1981, settling in Orange County “because I knew one person here.” But after a short time in Southern California, James went to Mexico where he acted and periodically sang in a soap opera on Mexican television.
A representative for a major record label’s Mexico office persuaded James to return to the United States and pursue his career as a songwriter and performer. Upon his return, he formed a band immediately.
“I’m the world’s biggest over-achiever,” James said with a laugh. “So when I came back I promised myself I’d put a band together in one week.” True to his word, a week later the first edition of Rumbletown was playing at the now-defunct Spatz in Huntington Harbour. After a few personnel adjustments, the current lineup was solidified and the group has been together for about nine months.
Whether it is due to the band’s unconventional makeup, James’ charisma as a front man or the group’s anthemic music, Rumbletown recently has been attracting the attention of record company scouts, said band manager and consultant Mike Jacobs, who in June signed on to manage Rumbletown.
“Either they are extremely lucky or something extremely good is going on because I’ve had more fortunate ‘accidents’ in six weeks with this band than I’ve had with other acts in their whole careers,” Jacobs said.
Rumbletown’s quick inroads into the music business may allow the band to grow out of the local club circuit quicker than most. That would be fine with James.
“As long as the bad bands outnumber the good bands, club owners are going to be exploiters rather than helpers,” James said. Although he said he’s found a few exceptions to that rule in Orange County, James maintains that “97% of club owners are exploiters.”
A thoughtful and articulate speaker, James says he his currently focusing his songwriting on the impact political and social issues are having on individuals and relationships.
“We’ve been called a working class band because we sing about realizable American goals like family and life-long friendships, which have become kind of passe,” James said.
Owning up to a fondness for writing 12-minute epics on nothing less than the meaning of life, James said he recognizes commercial considerations and as a result has been concentrating on trying to say more with less.
“I’m keying in on how to be economical,” he said. “Instead of doing 20-minute songs about my entire life, I’m doing three-minute songs about certain actual experiences in my life. And working with the band we’re coming up with some pretty radical collaborations.
“I’m learning the commercial structure of songs, which is pretty nebulous, while keeping the message in them.”
That message, which James approaches from various angles, is that individuals are more than ever getting lost in the race for material comforts.
“We have these images in our society--on television and on every billboard you see--that aren’t meant to make you a better person, they’re meant to sell you a product,” James said. “When the entire society is geared around products, not people, then people become automatons that are just out there to buy.
“In the quest for material gain, it’s becoming more apropos to just cut everyone else out. Those people that don’t really matter in your quest become counterproductive elements, so they just don’t mean anything.
“I’d really like to see us get back to a knowledge- and peace-loving society,” he said. “I remember, back in the ‘60s I’d have to say, when knowledge was the quest more than money. There was a hunger for knowledge, and not just terrestrial knowledge, I mean knowledge, whatever that was.”
James is talking about more than formal academic education. Although he received a degree in business administration from Fulton-Montgomery Community College in Johnstown, N.Y., which he says has been extremely useful in the music world, he has no plans to trade in his guitar for the financial security his former classmates have opted for in business careers.
“I hear people say, ‘I think I’ll go into computers.’ Why? So you can create better computers?” James said. “That’s why they did it in the ‘60s, and that’s why we’ve got Apple and all those others: because people wanted to make something better.”
LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale Monday for two Pacific Amphitheatre shows: Joan Armatrading-Graham Nash on Aug. 12 and Whitney Houston on Sept. 19. . . . Tickets will be available Sunday for the Psychedelic Furs show Sept. 5 at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. James Brown’s Aug.1 show at Irvine Meadows has been postponed, while Krokus’ concert Aug. 2 at Irvine Meadows has been canceled due to an injury in the band. Refunds for the Krokus show are available at point of purchase. . . . Poco will play the Coach House on Aug. 7.