Donald Byron Wheatley – Moondogs and Mad Dogs
Maiden Voyage – 5 May 2017
Moondogs and Mad Dogs is the debut album from Donald Byron Wheatley, the cracked-voiced scion of a family of showmen or fairground people (carnie as they’d be known in America) stretching back one hundred and fifty years. Travelling all over the country, although Wheatley never performed on stage, music was in the family’s blood with everyone playing some instrument or the other. When his father, known as Big Don, suffered a stroke, he set up a Pro Tools rig and began recording some of the songs he’d written. When he passed, three years later, his son took up the baton and cut some tracks of his own. But life got in the way, and nothing came of them, until, inspired by the deaths of some close friends, he began writing again and was persuaded to make some proper recordings. Danny Wilson, Danny & The Champions Of The World frontman, got to hear them and decided he wanted to share this treasure with the wider world on his new label, and this album, which features various members of Wilson’s band along with Siobhan Parr and pedal steel legend BJ Cole, is the result.
A tribute to his father and the music on which he was raised, it makes no bones about parading the influences with Dylan and Lennon to the fore. The latter looms large in the echoey sung piano ballad Nothing (which recalls Woman in particular) while Dylan can be heard on several of the tracks, most notably the song for his father The Lonesome Carol of Big Don, which takes its cue from Subterranean Homesick Blues. The equally driving Hand Me Down Leopard Skin Hat, the title of which speaks for itself.
Meant with no disrespect, the likes of Not Tonight Josephine and the punchy, chugging Fighting For Sunlight are meat and potatoes pub rock with a side order of rhythm and blues, but they sound great turned up loud in the car while Swaley Howell, a song about his uncle, is in the good times vein of Slim Chance. Indeed, there’s an easy rolling vibe throughout, from the opening Life’s A Beach with its slide intro giving way to acoustic strum, handclaps rhythm and tumbling lyrics through to the Dylanesque (I Want You), pedal-steel title track closer nod to friends living and dead.
I’ve been playing this a lot and find myself particularly coming back to the mid-tempo, organ backed Smoking Gun (where a touch of Van Morrison’s mingles with Bob) and, organ joined by piano and horns, the swaying Ten Dollar Jenny. It may not be musically original and it may be in thrall to its influences, but that doesn’t negate its listenability or the fact that this is the sort of thing you’ll dig out when you have musically like-minded friends come over and you want something readily familiar but also to impress them with a name they don’t yet know.
Out now on Maiden Voyage.