(REVIEW) Tomas Doncker’s ‘The Mess We Made’ is a Sign of Our Troubled Times
“All I see / All around me is Blood and Concrete / Blood and Concrete”
Why does this lyric from the funk-driven “Blood and Concrete” on bluesman Tomás Doncker’s recently released political masterwork, The Mess We Made, conjure up an immediately heart-grinding image with little need for further explanation?
Perhaps it’s because Doncker music-speaks a painfully pervasive sign-of-our-times-truth with the sentiments on his racially charged eight-track album. It is a truth that, while easier for some of us to ignore, cannot be denied any longer: change is mandatory. This seasoned artist is not apologizing for his views either. Set against a groovy backdrop of power bass, wailing guitar licks, harmonious backing vocals, and clap tracks, his biting lyrics take foreground in this alternative rhythm & blues social commentary.
“We’re living in fear of the Gangsta Police / Supposed to protect and serve / Supposed to keep the peace / But now we’re all dodging their bullets / ‘Cause they’ve got their finger on the trigger / Gonna pull it.”
With the soulful gravel of vocals that encapsulate evolving approaches on each track, Doncker demands/asks/screams/pleads/laments for an uprising in the only way he knows how: through his music.
“It all started on the day of the Charleston Massacre,” Doncker gives insight to his inspiration. “The recent “Road to Charleston” was emotionally taxing enough for me (aka: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Ferguson, Eric Garner, Baltimore – not to mention some of the less publicized events around the country and the world), [but] the heinous events which occurred on June 17, 2015 pushed me over the edge. I was overwhelmed with rage, hatred, confusion and disillusionment. I had no place to put these feelings. I had no idea how to process them. So, in a selfish attempt to maintain my own sanity I did the only thing I could do — write about it. By Sunday, June 21, I had written 4 new songs. Within ten days I had recorded the 8 songs that would become The Mess We Made.”
In “Revolution,” another funky, almost dirty (musically, lyrically & vocally), horn-celebrated number, Doncker flat-out calls bullshit on society for selling out on the possibility of a revolution by subscribing to corporate sponsorship. He uses specifics to point out a general truth with a menacing chant: “Take the hoodie off / and pull your pants up / Take the hoodie off and pull your pants up! / I’m calling BULLSHIT!!! Brother to brother, man to man, why can’t we get together, God damn?” he asks, before bringing us home by borrowing a one-line melody & lyric from the Beatles: “You say you want a revolution”… then back to … “Bullshit….” (This song could be Bernie Sanders’ campaign song.)
Ouch. Yes. Sometimes the truth hurts when it hits, but this bluesman manages to deliver the blow with an uplifting-bitter-sweet-swift-kick-to-the-soul that is not easy to pull off. I dare you to press ‘play’ on his fast-tempo, alternative rhythm & blues, somewhat disco-reggae-fused: “Hey-hey-ooh-hey-hey & clap-clap-clap-clap” backed single “Church is Burning Down” without (at the very least) shaking your shoulders. I know I can’t do it.
Ponder the irony of cutting up the rug to a song that spits the words: “My church is burning down / My church is burning down / Unholy fire in the house of God / So damn sick and tired of being sick and tired and abused / My church is burning down / Domestic terrorism burning crosses on the lawn…” Well, this happens:
Doncker is a world-renowned blues artist/guitarist who was a fiery force on New York’s downtown “No Wave” scene in the early 1980’s. He toured internationally and recorded in Japan with Jazz pianist Masabumbi Kikuchi. He produced studio and songwriting sessions with Bootsy Collins & Yoko Ono. His longstanding track record boasts collaborations and stages shared with a litany of A-list, iconic musicians including: Madonna, Sean Lennon, Steel Pulse, Ivan Neville, Bonnie Raitt, Meshell Ndegeocello, Living Colour lead singer Corey Glover and former P-Funk keyboardist, Amp Fiddler. In 2010, Doncker performed in China as a headlining act at the Shanghai Folk Festival, and in front of an audience of over 100,000 people as part of the Shanghai World Expo.
I could go on, but The Mess We Made blasts all that out of its path with a musical eruption—of passion, sorrow, rage, possible hope, frustration, and the sheer inability to sit back and do nothing—that feels like it had no choice but to come out. There is not doubt that this album is a manifestation of pure inspiration and intention. Even Doncker’s version of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” allows the listener to experience a song they’ve heard so often it blends into their consciousness, through a fresh set of ears, in the context of such a manifesto. Singing this song is a man looking for equality, peace, unity and freedom. He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for, but Goddamn, he deserves it.
There is beauty in the irony of Doncker brightly singing the blues for us at a time when our society is so desperately, desperately in need of a revolution. He does it with an up-beat, danceable joy that is impossible to refute, yet challenging to reconcile with the dire straits he describes in these eight gems.
Thank God somebody has found a way to put these frustrations into a work of art like this. I’d recommend everyone who cares to carve some time out of their life to sit down, stand up or dance around while listening to The Mess We Made from start-to-finish, and then pass it along to a friend. Revolution starts with step one.