November 11, 2008

Donna the Buffalo Does Castaways

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This may sound like an insane question: Why would you go to a concert? The explanations are straightforward. One, you enjoy the music the band plays; it touches you in some manner. Two, your friends are going and it might be fun; Friday nights and lab reports don’t always mix. Three, you know someone in the band; maybe they’ll give you a wave during a song, or throw you a (wood) drumstick. Four, you like live music. If you’ve heard of the Deadheads, or recognize the term “Red Sox Nation,” you know that some people have an elevated level of dedication to some bands or sports teams. While there will always be massive support for the Red Sox and The Grateful Dead (check out Darkstar Orchestra), it is important to realize that this degree of enthusiasm exists for smaller music groups. Case in point, Donna the Buffalo and their faithful following, also known as “The Herd.”
Last Friday, two bands, Donna the Buffalo (featuring Sim Redmond) and Who You Are graced Castaways, a bar at the base of Cayuga Lake. Who You Are, an indie band headed by vocalist and songwriter Trevor MacDonald and accompanied by Brett Powell, Chris Predmore and Jason Shegogue, started the night with an hour’s worth of head-nodding beats. Many of their songs reminded me of a mix between Neil Young and U2, with long musical build-ups to vocals, creepy riffs produced by Shegogue playing an electric guitar lying on its back and soft vocals that made it seem as though they were playing along your side. Many of their songs brought to light the pride of being an American, which was a nice lead-up to the political nature of many of Donna the Buffalo’s lyrics.
Donna the Buffalo (DTB) is a five-person band that was formed in nearby Trumansburg. It is composed of Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear who provide vocals and guitar, Tom Gilbert on drums, David McCracken on keyboard and Jay Sanders on bass. In addition to her spectacular voice and guitar talents, Nevins also plays the fiddle, accordion and froittor. The accordion in particular took this writer’s heart through the front door. For two and a half hours, DTB played a knee-wobbling, soul-crushing set that reached across all their albums, including their most recent production, Silverlined. The crowd was lively, and I found myself being pushed forward by many people with their eyes shut and their heads bobbing to the rhythm. A couple of times I was caught so deep in the pseudo-mosh pit that I got a face full of bushy ponytail and got slapped by some dude’s dreads. This was a literal example of the way music can bring people together.
Throughout their set, DTB employed genres such as zydeco, folk, country-rock, bluegrass and and any combination thereof, allowing everyone to let go of themselves, and become part of something larger. Indeed, since DTB was founded twenty some odd years ago, the local music scene has become more cohesive. The original band members created the GrassRoots music festival that invades Trumansburg every July, and is a favorite of local Ithacans and Cornellians staying the summer. At GrassRoots, DTB’s most mighty contributions to local music and community is evident through collaboration with other bands and a sharing of the joys that live music naturally brings to people. During the four-day jam fest in July, DTB can regularly be seen chilling with other bands and exchanging, among other things, music.
Donna the Buffalo’s lyrics, written primarily by Tara and Jeb, are consistently optimistic and touch on timeless themes such as peace and love. Also, it is clear that the band follows politics and governmental policy. At the very beginning of their show, Jeb opened by praising the “Good news of the election,” and at the end of the show he sang about the joys of immigration. That is not to say that the show was a political rant. The band played to the crowd, and often improvised. They played a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and jammed out for a 20-minute block in the middle of their song, “Conscious Evolution.” Through danceable beats and inspirational lyrics, as well as a real connection with the audience, DTB delivered a show that would make Jerry Garcia proud. Donna the Buffalo is admirable not because it accesses different genres of music. Rather, its music brings people together and connects them.