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A Little Roaming Music
Donna the Buffalo's Live From the American Ballroom
By Jonathan Kiefer

For anyone who has harbored fantasies of running away with a roots-music festival but hasn't found the courage or means, the most recent recording from Donna the Buffalo should make a good virtual substitute. Live From the American Ballroom, the band's fifth album, and first live one, feels like an outdoor party thrown by people who really enjoy each other's company–not just these six musicians, but also their thousands of fans, known collectively as "The Herd." The party's theme is broadly defined in political, social, and spiritual terms, through fifteen tracks worth of music to roam by. Hearing these songs, even on the stereo, you can almost be there–feeling the setting sun on your face, smelling the freshly-cut grass, tasting the onset of summer, and, if you're in to this sort of thing, having your consciousness raised.

It is implied, by the album's cover, and its sampling of half a dozen gigs along last spring's East Coast tour, that the so-called American ballroom is a vast, fresh-air arena, with the unique acoustics of a melting pot. Donna the Buffalo, in whose arrangements steel guitars, synthesizers and scrubboards share space, is the sort of American band that evades categories by nimbly slipping between them. It isn't quite right to call them rock, folk, zydeco, reggae, or country, but it's as wrong not to. The band stampedes through this and other zigzags with appealing confidence. In fact, their well-controlled contradictions have proven useful for establishing a unique and approved musical identity. Though it may not be especially subversive to set politically progressive or even confrontational lyrics to celebratory, danceable, infectious grooves, it does sell tickets, and presumably, records.

Most of the songs are tonally self-contained, built around tight loops of uncomplicated chords and effective, cleanly phrased melodies, and sewn to steady, even meters. There is something of an overall sameness to them, but not an unpleasant one–as in a room full of unfinished furniture, one finds sustaining pleasure in the basic, unvarnished craftsmanship of each piece and in the uniformity of the entire collection. The mix could benefit from a bit more presence and clarity, but it doesn't want for live-album authenticity.

The band plays breezily and competently. Jeb Puryear brings equal nonchalance to his vocals and guitar work. Richie Stearns adds color and character with the Lowery organ. Everyone sings but Tom Gilbert, the drummer, who contentedly and unobtrusively solidifies the rhythmic feel of each song. Tara Nevins' vocals are literally outstanding; her voice is a beauty, well realized in this music's unique context–unique partly from the presence of an accordion, which she plays as well.

Musically and lyrically, a kindhearted blend of wistfulness and good cheer is evident early on, and pervades both of the album's two CDs. "In This Life" must cycle through some reflection before arriving at the conclusion that "I won’t be drowned by the little things," which sets off the deep breath of the song's bridge, neatly implying a kind of musical catharsis. "Tides of Time," is superbly rendered to seem uplifting and melancholy at once, as the vertiginous nostalgia of its title and lyric suggests. The open, onward-driving but muted vamp of "Seems to Want to Hurt This Time" is both haunted and determined. "There Must Be" etches a delicate melody–with the fiddle and the voice of Tara Nevins–against the steady pulse of a common-time beat best described as somewhere between heavy folk and light rock. Round and round this one goes, like Pachelbel’s Canon, whose chord cycle it fairly resembles.

The irony thickens in the chipper chorus of "America," which is as melodically catchy as it is lyrically sly: "America, yeah, it's so beautiful. Oh you know, it's so wonderful and clean. America, it's so beautiful. It's the only place that I've ever seen." A bar or two before calling for an act of love to save the world, "Push Comes to Shove" threatens wicked politicians with the retributive prophesy that, "Your skin's gonna boil like a deep fried chicken." It, like "Conscious Evolution," the most overt of the album's several mantra-songs, also contains strong evidence that "jam-band" could safely be added to the list of partially correct Donna the Buffalo descriptors. Taking a cue from the obviously satisfied Herd, the band tends to revel in their songs, and let them go on for a while.

Live From the American Ballroom is affable and rewarding, a good primer for anyone who hasn't yet discovered the band, or just needs a final prompting to once and for all go join The Herd.