Western New York turns out to be one of those creative hotbeds that most people don’t know much about. Ever since 1874, summers at Chautauqua have been filled, for a fortunate 100,000 visitors, with recreation, arts, lectures, and spiritual fulfillment. Buffalo, Rochester and Ithaca have long supported outsized music scenes. And then, there’s Donna the Buffalo.
Donna is one of those bands I’ve heard from time to time, but never really discovered. They come from the Finger Lakes region, and they remain the creative core of the annual Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance in tiny Trumansburg, New York (this year, the festival begins on Thursday, July 18, and I’m hoping to be a part of it). Donna the Buffalo has been playing and recording together for over twenty years. It’s not too late to join the party.
Truth be told, before I started writing this article, I had never completely listened to a Donna the Buffalo album. For the past month or two, I’ve been listening to a half dozen DTB CDs over and over again. They’re terrific. I really like this band. They’re authentic, deeply rooted, and seem to be having a whole lot of fun. They seem to get the commercial thing–this music is neither experimental nor challenging–but they’ve managed to keep their integrity, to stay just to the side of the commercial craziness of the music business.
On every album, there’s a great feel for Americana, healthy doses of country and bluegrass, an old-timey sensibility when it feels right, pure form rock n’ roll, bits of soul and funk. It all comes together with a superior sense of how it all ought to be arranged and presented. What do I like about this music? I guess I like the sound of the two lead vocalists: Tara Nevins with her country style on some tunes, and Jeb Puryear with a folk / rock / rockabilly / country style on others, but that’s just the start. There’s Tara’s fiddle keeping time on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and Jeb’s pedal steel on “Temporary Misery.” I like the way Kathy Ziegler sounds on backup vocals, a nice complement to Tara’s voice. I like the way the music dips into country music and rock, then goes funky.
The work is really tight–I love it when a band is really tight, really together, hitting every musical idea with perfect timing. Most, but not all, of the work is original, the vast majority written by the band’s lead singers, Nevins and Puryear. They tend to write catchy songs with memorable hooks, and after nearly 200 original compositions for this wonderful group, they know how to make it all work. They do touch base with respected influences: an especially handsome version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” pays homage to Ralph Stanley, for example.
Allow me recommend a few of the albums I’ve especially enjoyed.
So far, I think my favorite is Positive Friction, released in 2000. This is album that I seem to play most often, probably because I enjoy Tara’s vocals, the chorus, and the arrangement, the catchy “No Place Like the Right Time” almost as much as I enjoy one of her other tunes, “Yonder.” The latter is both appealing as a catchy tune and as the kind of earnest social commentary that is so much of Donna the Buffalo’s creative approach. Nice lyrical treatment, too; here’s an example:
The waters led to the promised land
Seeds of greed washed upon its shore
White footprints in the settling sand
Brought the ways of an ignorant man
Silverlined is a newer album, circa 2008, is a more mature work, more subtle, more varied in its instrumentation and soundscape. Puryear’s “Meant to Be,” for example, reminds me of Emmylou Harris’ work on Red Dirt Girl. “I Don’t Need a Riddle” combines Nevins’ more mature voice with a Cajun accordion and an interesting, vaguely funky rhythm track. The songs roll on, but they seem to be more contemporary, more artful, arranged less to please an audience ready to dance than a single listener enjoying a handsome combination of an interesting arrangement, a plaintive voice, and thoughtful lyrics; “Beauty Within” is a good example with Nevins on lead vocals.
A band that counts its time together in decades ought to encourage some solo work, and that’s precisely the approach here. Right now, I’m enjoying Wood and Stone, a 2011 solo album by Tara Nevins. Here, there’s a healthy amount of straight-ahead country (perhaps bluegrass / old-time / country is a more accurate description), as in “The Wrong Side” with some lovely instrumental breaks. Nice version of “Stars Fell on Alabama,” too. It’s all easy, natural, and a wonderful side journey just close enough to her work with Donna to keep fans happy (I’ll include myself here).
After I wrote all of this, I figured I would check on what others have written about Donna the Buffalo. On Amazon, Alanna Nash wrote this:
Donna the Buffalo–hard to categorize, but easy to love–are meant to be heard live. The six-member group thrives on jams and grooves, blending, bending, and veering from Appalachian country to Cajun, reggae, zydeco, folk, and roots rock often in the same song (check out the nearly 13-minute “Conscious Evolution”).
Intrigued, I kept reading:
Frequently compared to the Grateful Dead, DTB evoke Jerry Garcia and pals, both musically and with their rabid, nomadic fan base (the Herd). But in mixing tribal celebration with spiritual, social, and political issues, the band, which travels the country in a 1960 tour bus, recalls so many other hippie-era ensembles.
Not so sure I agree. DTB reminds me of at least a dozen other bands, but the Dead wouldn’t be high on that list. This doesn’t feel like a California band, not to me, anyway. Instead, I’m hearing a distinctly Appalachian vibe here, probably by way of Nashville, with a mix of lots of other styles I associate with Mississippi, Virginia, and other places on this side of the country.
Then again… there’s this live album from 2001, probably a better representation of the band than the individual CDs. It’s a compilation of tour recordings called Live from the American Ballroom. The sixties are alive and well on “Conscious Evolution,” a kind of tribal chant by way of rock n’ roll, world music, Cajun, funk, lots of styles bubbling up to the surface, then fading into the next musical idea. In fact, the whole album is filled with long songs and the kinds of improvisation that filled so many live albums in the 1970s. I think my favorite is “Standing Room Only,” kind of Cajun, kind of a chant, great dance song for a Saturday night.
Those days are gone (but available online and from any well-stocked vinyl-oriented record store), but Donna the Buffalo keeps on going. A few months ago, I wasn’t sure what these guys were all about. Now, I like them enough to recommend them to you. Who knows? Maybe we’ll all meet up in the Finger Lakes in July.
P.S. Lots of Donna the Buffalo video on You Tube.