Singer, songwriter and guitar player Tomas Doncker has been a presence on the music scene of New York for more than two decades. He has been in groups such as James Chance and the Contortions, Defunkt, Loose Jointz and others. He has recorded with jazz pianist Masabumi Kikuchi and saxophone player Sadao Watanabe, as well. With Moaning At Midnight: The Howlin’ Wolf Project, he brings together his band to make an album that is utterly listenable in so many ways. They pay tribute to one of blues’ greats via strong rhythms and riffs, and yet somehow have made an album which is original and very much their own.
The opening track on the album is “Evil,” and it is a brilliant rendition. The vocals are bluesy, stagey and strong. The band support well, with the bass lines adding new dimensions to imaginative playing over the top on guitars and harmonica. There is a brilliant guitar solo. “Killing Floor,” meanwhile, is softer, slower and brings the pace down with interaction between the vocals and harmonica. The harmonica weaves in and out, out and in like a cat prowling the vocal lines — and again the guitar solo is superb.
“Back Door Man” opens with the familiar riff, and the track is well covered. The vocals are gentle for this track and delivered in almost a whisper at times yet there is a sense of menace which builds in the song. David Barnes’ harmonica is mesmerizing. “Moanin’ At Midnight” has beautiful vocals and the essence of The Wolf is so strong it feels he could be in the room. “Spoonful,” one of my favorite tracks of all time, is very different in the Doncker band’s hands — and they make the song their own. Excellent vocals are backed up by the band and Doncker’s voice is totally suited to this song.
“Blind Melon Morpheus (Missed The Train)” is a short interlude played by Barnes on harmonica, and he develops an opening solo into a riff which follows through to the end (all 1.22 minutes), crescending and receding like a train. It’s fun and beautiful. “Shook Down” has a sonorous bass in the background, and again that harmonica helps build the song to a manic blues crescendo in which the whole band joins before the vocals come in and for a brief moment stand alone before the band rejoin. “I Ain’t Superstitious” has the keyboard dominating the opening, and this is an uplifting version of the song with strong rock and roll overtones and a funk mode behind. Fast, and a delight to listen to.
“Smoke Stack Lightening” has to be the highlight of the album. It is given a psychedelic opening and a very original start, but Doncker proves he can howl like the Wolf himself. The opening and finale are built around a spoken mid section — brilliant blues music The last track, “Moanin’ at Midnight (Ras Jah Ames Dubmix)” starts with a truly eerie and surreal opening on keyboards which is joined by the harmonica, then the bass and finally the piece builds into a dub version of the original. It is different, to say the least. I am not sure what the Wolf would have made of it had he lived to see dub music and modern times, but it certainly has an overriding beat — and once the harmonica comes into remind you of the original riff all is well.
Moaning At Midnight: The Howlin’ Wolf Project is brave because while there is, of course, much reference to Howlin’ Wolf, the band have puts their own individual stamp on things. Doncker’s voice bears passing resemblance to Wolf’s, but he does not try to imitate. His vocals have a different timbre to the Wolf’s, and introduce a softness to the songs and a very different emotive feel to the lyrics — very much in his own style. Throughout, there is respect for the original riffs but new tweaks and offerings are added, making each track individual.
As someone who cut their musical teeth on Messrs. Wolf, Waters and other wonderful blues people, I will admit to agreeing to review this with not a little trepidation: I have heard enough people imitating both to know in a track or two whether it is worth a listen. Ten tracks on, I made my mind up — this is definitely worth a listen. Whether you are familiar with Wolf’s original material or are new to the Blues, this is a great album — original and yet strongly reflective of the era and style of Mr Wolf.
Blues with class. Doncker and Co. nailed it.