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
companynot 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 therefeeling 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,
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 oneas 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 contextunique
partly from the presence of an accordion, which she plays
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 wont 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 melodywith the fiddle and the
voice of Tara Nevinsagainst 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 Pachelbels Canon, whose chord cycle it fairly
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.