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rock nyc's BEST ALBUM OF 2014: Tomas Doncker Band's "Big Apple Blues"



The other day I was on a Marvin Gaye kick, Darlene Love had performed her Marvin medley at BB King’s the day before, so I figured always a good time to listen to the man and I was listening to “I’ll Be Doggone” –a song I’ve heard maybe 20 million times, when I noticed this spoken sung very last words: “Get me a drink”. It’s been there forever but I’ve always been too busy singing along to notice it, but it is cool and funny and sexist as hell (as the song is, of course) and the soupcon of cool you’d imagine from the stubborn kinda fella.

I mention it here because I’ve listened to the Tomas Doncker Band’s Big Apple Blues so much this year and yet literally an hour ago I noticed this line in “Fun City”: “when ATM’s break into your dreams”. I shouldn’t be surprised by it, lyricist Yusef Komunyakaa wrote it and really, this is the last song on the album so yeah, we know how great he has been all album long Still the image is so striking, and the reversal so clever, and just the idea of the sort of sacredness of one’s dreams (it is the great horror of “A Nightmare On Elm Street” –that you have nothing secret and nowhere to hide) can be broken into in Fun City or Gotham, or whatever it is. At the very end of this ride there is one more horror awaiting, one more place where the wheels keep turning, one more blues. And one more joy, a thought so strong it can enter your dreams. Big Apple Blues is that sort of an album.

I am good friends with Tomas Doncker and I have been for years, his True Groove Records is a prolific enterprise. This year there has been a Marla Mase album, a True Groove All Stars, the remastered Buy The Contortions, a wild jazz excursion, lots of buzz about his Howlin’ Wolf tribute album… just lots of action, two residencies… but despite our friendship and despite his prolific year, Big Apple Blues is the other thing. The other one. It is the album of the year regardless of my own friendship with Doncker and, indeed, in an “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town” way, it probably stops me from appreciating the album as thoroughly as I might.

Doncker and Komunyakaa had worked together on the The Mercy Suite album in 2009, where the funk master and  his Pulitzer prize winner lyricist had used outside lead singers to expand on their vision. The two always planned to work together again and when Komunyakaa went backstage after a Summerstage performance of “Diablo Love”, “blues needs new shoes” was the word and the two began work on what would be Big Apple Blues. With the TDB band, who have been on fire all year long, the album was recorded live in the studio (except for “Fun City”).

The result is an album about how the blues moved from the South to the North, from the plantations in Atlanta to the Church storefronts of Brooklyn. It is a refracted vision that is the story it tells us about verbally and  performed musically. If there is a better song about faith in the 21st century than “The New Day”, I haven’t heard it. If anything swings stronger than “Big Apple Blues” or sweeter than “Coney Island “ I don’t know it. And if anybody has ever attempted to reflect on the US entrenched white supremacy jones through the Band’s sophomore album, who connects the dots between “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Grooveallegiance”, as Yusef and Doncker manage on “Can’t Say No”, who would it be? Who else could do it? Who else would?

I wrote this in October (here): “With a magnificent blues band behind him, including the great bassist Josh David, and a lyricist of intense personal and political vision, a singing voice that improves with every song and the ability to write songs the way other people breath, this is an electrified tour de force, a statement on the art of the art of music and an important addition to the myth that is New York City. It has been called a journey through black America but that is to damn it with faint praise. This isn’t about black people, it is about what human people should and do and don’t do for each other.”

Now, I think I was wrong. That isn’t quite what it is about. Big Apple Blues is the story of how the blues came to New York City and what it did when it got here. Perfect subject for rock nyc’s album of the year.

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