Localized: The Howlin’ Tomcats
The blues is a cornerstone of American music, transcending time, location and station in life as it evolves and intersects with country, jazz and rock. It’s in that spirit that Megan Blue and the Bonfire and The Howlin’ Tomcats play their own brand of blues. The two groups will perform alongside opener Brother Chunky at Kilby Court on Thursday, October 19 for SLUG’s monthly Localized show (doors at 7, music at 8). SLUG Localized is sponsored by Riso-Geist.
The Howlin’ Tomcats are made up of SLC blues veterans who have been playing in many different projects and making their rounds in the scene for years. The four friends are all equally committed to playing the blues whenever, wherever, to anyone who will listen. With Zach “Huckleberry” Parish on guitar and vocals, “Bad” Brad Wheeler on harmonica, David Moreno on standup bass and “Downtown” Doc Brown on drums, the group hosts weekly blues jams and plays gigs all over the valley.
The idea behind their jam nights is to add an element of spontaneity and throw out the rigidity of playing the same set with the same lineup night after night, inviting anyone who wants to join them on stage to give it a try. “Usually someone takes control as the driver of the song,” Wheeler says. “Sometimes people aren’t any good. I’ve seen the bar clear out when it’s obvious someone can’t play—the audience lets them know. Ultimately, it’s a great way to meet younger and even older musicians. We’ve had people from Texas and Florida come and jam with us.”
“The blues taught me to put feeling into a single note. Nobody can teach that, it’s just experience.”
The night I interviewed The Howlin’ Tomcats, I witnessed firsthand what they were talking about. I saw young musicians get up on stage who looked more likely to play Blink-182 covers than authentic-sounding blues, but they were right there in the groove with the rest of the band. Looking around, it did my heart good to see guitar cases lining the bar wall with eager players close by, waiting to get their chance.
“As a band, we can go all sorts of places,” says Wheeler. “Some nights [we play] Sam Cooke tunes; other nights Zach might want to get jazzy and we do Caravan. We have quite the repertoire to pull from.” The seeds of such dedication to the blues were born early with this crew. “My gateway into the blues was listening to Led Zeppelin and learning about their influences like Muddy Waters and Elmore James and
working my way from there,” Parish says. “Then I found the Dead Goat Saloon in Salt Lake and found a real blues and roots music scene … I was down there every Monday night, soaking it up as much as I could.”
Wheeler was lucky enough to get a job at Dead Goat Saloon, which put him right in the center of the local scene, but it wasn’t until he was goofing around on the harmonica at a party that he really got into the blues. “Anyone interested in the harmonica is going to find the blues, and once you investigate the blues it becomes this skeleton key into all these other forms of music,” Wheeler says. “The blues taught me to put feeling into a single note. Nobody can teach that, it’s just experience.”
“Some nights [we play] Sam Cooke tunes; other nights Zach might want to get jazzy and we do Caravan. We have quite the repertoire to pull from.”
Playing with such passion and generously sharing the stage with others made me wonder what success as a band means to The Howlin’ Tomcats. “It’d be nice to pay the bills,” says Wheeler. “Right now, about 50% of my income comes from gigs. I believe it’s the night life that makes a city interesting—where so much of a city’s culture comes to life—so I know what we do has value. We love what we do, it would just be nice to see that rewarded.”
If I haven’t given you a sufficient idea of this band’s energy and ethos yet, then at least know this: When I asked Parish about their mission statement, he simply and kindly said, “To play the damn blues!” Make sure to catch The Howlin’ Tomcats at October’s Localized, and follow them on Facebook to keep up with their ever-busy schedule.