High-energy rockers return to Statebridge
A lot of bands – good bands – stumble when they try out new sounds on new albums. But Donna the Buffalo, who play at the Statebridge Lodge Thursday, can shift from country to reggae to rock ‘n’ roll between the verse and the chorus – or play all three at once – without missing a beat. In fact, they blend styles so seemlessly they’ve created their own genre, a sound that’s got more substance than “jam band,” grooves along with Toots and the Maytals, matches the Beach Boys pop hook for pop hook and has the energy of a good old time porch hootenanny. And they would fit right in on Bob Dylan’s jingle jangle morning. “It comes naturally from the stuff we listen to, what were into,” says singer and guitarist Jeb Puryear of the group’s sound. “It’s not conscious decision making going on. It really kind of starts with writing the songs and things get added to it after that – you’ll have a beat that triggers something and away it goes after that,” says Puryear, who writes the group’s songs along with singer and multi-instrumentalist Tara Nevins. The band does like to keep its songs hovering between established genres, Puryear says.
“If I have something with a reggae flavor, I like it not to go all the way in that direction,” Puryear says. The band’s last performance at Statebridge, in 2001, was an hours-long outburst of energy. It was one of those concerts you go to and say, “I’ve gotta get some of their CDs.” But studio recordings rarely capture any band at its best and that seems even truer of Donna the Buffalo. It’s not that there studio work is bad – their albums are great – it’s just that their concerts are astonishing. Puryear says the group won’t be caught writing or playing any of those songs that talk about what a drag the road is. In fact, Puryear, who’s got a family at home in Ithaca, N.Y., said touring with Donna the Buffalo gives him and his bandmates a good reason to keep playing music. “When you get to a certain age, things start tugging at you,” he says. “This gives us an excuse.” The heart of the band’s sound is alternating lead vocals. Puryear and Nevins, who’ve been playing music together for about 15 years, typically trade places at the mike after each song. Nevins sings in a more traditional folk style while Puryear lays down a deeper, soulful reggae vocal. Not only do the song change tone when the singers switch, but it keeps the performance – and their albums – rolling along in a way that having one voice singing all the songs sometimes doesn’t.
Musically the band is also all over the map – but not in a messy way. Unlike other so-called “jam bands,” Donna the Buffalo never seem to lose their way while they’re jamming, no matter how long or loose the song is. Like the great jam bands – Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Allman Brothers, Frank Zappa’s groups – their solid pop melodies keep even their 15-minutes songs from floating off into a muddled stratosphere, though the energy the band puts out can send a listener to halfway to Pluto. “We grew up playing old time Appalachian fiddle music,” Puryear says. “That’s a big part of it, the energy that gets built up playing fiddle music.” Also like Young, the Allmans and Zappa, the fluid mingling of the musicians makes the songs – whether on CD or live – sound a little bit different each listen. The band also has lyrical depth and purpose. Puryear’s songs attack social injustice, such as racism and lately, political duplicity. “Last night, playing down the street, I was thinking the thing about the war deal is the same argument against the death penalty,” Puryear says. “Human beings are deciding who should die and the system’s not infallible.”These kinds of things needs to be done in the most purest fashion,” he says. “We’re just not up to that standard.”
Music by the waterDonna the BuffaloThursday, 7 p.m.State Bridge Lodge in Bond