This was the third time I’ve seen Tomas Doncker and his crack band, but the first time as the main event. In early 2013, the first time I saw him live, I regrettably showed up late & only caught the end of a set in which Tomas had invited the Ethiopian guitar legend Selam Woldemariam to share the stage with him (Doncker was opening that night for Ethiopian pop star Teddy Afro). Within a few minutes it became clear to me that I really picked the wrong night to miss the better part of a set. I clearly remember being blown away by both guitarists’ playing, and the sheer power of Doncker’s performance was riveting. He was putting everything he had into it. I was immediately impressed.
Cut to a year and a half later and I was watching Doncker and his band play back to back sets at The Cutting Room, backing up first his True Groove label mate Marla Mase, then a second set backing the inimitable No Wave legend James Chance. I made sure to be on time this time and was duly rewarded. Again, the heat coming off the stage during the entirety of both of those sets was astonishing, and once again I was impressed not only by the level of musicianship that Doncker surrounds himself with, but with the level of energy and dedication to every single moment he gives it himself. This is a consummate pro.
So I was very excited to finally see Doncker and his band as the main event, even moreso because this was to be a set largely dedicated to his recent record Moanin’ at Midnight: The Howlin’ Wolf Project, an album of covers of the legendary Chicago Blues man from which I had heard a few tracks a number of months back and was mightily impressed.
Once again, the minute they were on, Doncker and crew were in full gear. The band was on fire. His rhythm section is like a rock – the backbeats provided by Michael Faulkner slammed – every tune, regardless of tempo, dynamic, or volume level, grooved like a motherf*cker, and I found myself at very regular intervals watching the note perfect, fluidly subtle playing of bassist Josh David. He was all over it, hitting all sorts of brilliant little flourishes and fills, and yet completely understated and supportive at the same time. Rhythm guitarist (and album co-producer) James Dellatacoma was excellent in his tasteful, grooving support of the main man, and I was also glad to see and hear him beautifully step out front for a moment when he took a lead toward the end, demonstrating his own blues chops. Nick Rolfe, Doncker’s keys man, was every bit as excellent on the organ, and when on his monophonic Korg MS 2000 synth, gave touches of new wave/post punk/Bernie Worrell P-funk-ness that were pure candy to the ears (and the only non purist blues elements of the overall sound of the night – very interesting and successful additions I thought). Then there was David Barnes, Doncker’s harmonica ace, by his side, blowing like a bat out of Chicago hell through his taped-up Green Bullet mic and channeling the spirits of Little Walter and Junior Wells. Barnes is quite the showman as well and added a brilliant visual counterpoint and musical lead foil to the main man. He took a solo at the beginning of ‘Shook Down’ midway through the set that was pure show stopper.
And then of course was Doncker himself. From the previous shows I sort of knew what to expect but as I said, this was the first time for me that it was all him, the main event, for the whole show. And he did not disappoint for a second. The energy was at 10 every single song. He pours his guts into every shred of music, whether he’s singing his heart out, in this case hollering (howling?) at the rafters or shredding on his Jarrell guitars (the one slight disappointment for me was that from where I was sitting, pretty much front and center, the vocals were too low in the mix, though I guess it was more than made up for by the fact that his Rivera combo amp was pointed, excellently, straight at my head, so I was bathed in the guitar all night). He was so possessed that he blasted out two strings, one at the beginning of the show, one at the end, so that he had to play the last song sans axe (which turned out to be an unexpected gift, as I got to see that he’s every bit as masterful a performer and showman without the guitar in front of him, gesticulating and contorting his body and face in perfect pitch with the lyrical and emotional content coming out, leading the band and in fact the entire room through the ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ finale).
A few of my own personal favorites of an overall brilliant set were the absolutely on fire Smokestack Lightning toward the end (this is where TD broke his second string) and a medley he did of some songs from a forthcoming record, co-written by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, as well as the aforementioned David Barnes harp solo.
It was also wonderful, towards the end of the show, to see Doncker pay tribute to the just recently passed Bobby Womack. It was touching to watch as this seasoned powerhouse of an artist/ performer in his own right gave a verbal tribute to one of his own musical heroes in a gratitude-filled intro to Womack’s ‘It’s All Over Now’ describing how much the elder artist’s music had meant to him since childhood, and acknowledging how much of an influence Womack had on his own vocal style. And the rendition that followed was pure joy (once again, the band killed it).
This was a truly great set, made even more impressive by the fact that it was the late set at the Blue Note, getting started well past midnight. I got home after 3am and was still buzzing so all I can say is thanks very much Tomas Doncker & co. I’ll be looking forward to the next one.
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