Life Is A Carnival sang The Band and for Donald Byron Wheatley it could be his signature song. A scion of a travelling fairground family Wheatley had a nomadic upbringing, setting up and dismantling show rides across the country, a wild and probably not so romantic existence but once the crowds had their fill of candy floss and cheap thrills and set off home Wheatley would listen to his showman father sing songs culled from the blues tradition along with his abiding love, Bob Dylan. The young Wheatley learned these songs (he recalls singing along to Subterranean Homesick Blues, word-perfect, when he was six years old) and toyed with the idea of a musical career but life intervened, as it does. However that six year old Dylan aficionado resurfaced years later as Wheatley had to deal with adult issues; the death of his father, friends facing hard times and he found himself writing some songs. A musician cousin of his, John Wheatley, encouraged him to capture these in a studio and the pair headed off to Reservoir Recording Studio, a lucky strike on two accounts as it brought them into the orbit of Chris Clarke who runs the studios and is bass player with Danny & The Champions Of The World and Danny himself who was in the process of setting up a record label. Happenstance indeed but the upshot is that Wheatley can now proudly offer up Moondogs and Mad Dogs, a debut years in the making and adorned with a prime set of musicians including several of The Champs and pedal steel legend BJ Cole.
Like a musical Grandma Moses Wheatley is a primitive folk artist, his canvas the songs he heard growing up. Dylan is the prime mover. Several of the song titles nod to Dylan originals and he dots and darts throughout various Dylan eras, the amphetameanied talking blues of Subterranean Homesick Blues, Big Pink and The Basement Tapes, the red hot punk guitar assaults of Mike Bloomfield as Dylan transversed from folk to rock at Newport and Rolling Thunder Gypsy jaunts . But he also delves into Southern soul and funk (Not Tonight Josephine and Ten Dollar Jenny) along with the Romany wanderings of Ronnie Lane on Swalley Howell while there’s a nod to the pained solo recordings of John Lennon on Nothing, his voice smothered in echo uncannily akin to the late Beatle. He’s a grand wordsmith and half the fun here is in following the lyrics as there are unexpected twists and turns in the grand Dylan tradition as on the opening Life’s A Beach while Greenwich Village Blues is a wonderful capture of that time when Dylan et al invaded The Gaslight and it’s delivered with just the right amount of patina to allow the listener to wallow in the past.
On an album that’s unashamedly proud to wear its colours on its sleeve Wheatley transcends his influences coming across as a UK version of The Felice Brothers. The cracked voice, the sheer joy of the title song, the wracked and organ fuelled barnstorm of Smoking Gun are all delights but the best is on the blistering quicksilver ramshackle blues of Hand Me Down Leopard Skin Hat which, in a blind test, could easily be taken for a genuine lost Dylan song.