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Words by: Frank Etheridge | Images by: Jessica Etheridge
Donna The Buffalo :: 12.31.08 :: Orange Peel :: Asheville, NC
The first band my wife turned me onto when we were dating was Donna the Buffalo. Jessica chided me for being drawn to angry music and figured a dose of the sheer joy produced by Donna the Buffalo would be a necessary addition to the tunes we shared. She'd become well versed in the eclectic sound of the veteran New York-based group through their annual appearances as beloved headliners at Magnolia Fest and Springfest held in the Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park in Florida, legendary shows that had no small part in creating a rabid fan base collectively known as The Herd. A few spins of the blissful, powerful revelation that is DtB's album Positive Friction (Sugar Hill Records, 2000) and I was hooked.
|Donna The Buffalo :: 12.31.08 :: Asheville, NC|
2008 was a milestone in DtB's 20-year history, and Asheville, North Carolina, that Southern bohemia nestled beautifully in the Blue Ridge, was the perfect spot to host both a celebration of the past and a look toward the future. During the past year the band released the stellar Silverlined (Sugar Hill), recorded mostly at Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville, featuring the single "Lockett & Key." In 2008, the band also welcomed two new members, keyboardist Dave McCracken and bassist Jay Sanders, both of whom have spent years in the city's old-time music scene, which is traditional enough to stay true to its Celtic musical roots but innovative enough to produce rockers like Mad Tea Party.
For the 12.30.08 show, DtB hosted the New Year's Asheville Revue, which featured a long list of players from Asheville's bluegrass and old-time music circles, before their headlining set. On New Year's Eve, Tennessee-based The Believers held the opening slot. The duo of Cyd Frazzini (acoustic guitar) and Craig Aspen (mandolin, electric guitar and harmonica) had supported DtB during the fall West Coast tour, and the two bands have clearly created a mutual-admiration society, with Aspen calling the headliners "our favorite band in the world." Their set included originals "Ring, Ring, Ring," which swings with a Johnny Cash-like swagger, and the world-weary "Jordan," performed with the DtB backing band of McCracken, Sanders and drummer Tom Gilbert, and a cover of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," a shout out to "all the hippies out there" (and there were plenty of them in the Asheville audience). The Believers certainly converted their share on this night.
|The Believers :: 12.31.08|
After The Believers, the Orange Peel, an excellent venue ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the top five rock clubs in the country, began to swell with a raucous gathering of The Herd. The Orange Peel offers a great variety of draft beers, including a number of local micro-brews, but it seemed the party started well before many arrived. Showgoers escorting friends new and old on the sidewalk in a homemade "hammock taxi" brought a festival vibe, while there was plenty of cocktail-to-go pounding out front. The genuine nature and superb musicianship of DtB has earned them a fun and unique following including a fair number of heads, bluegrass aficionados and free thinkers of all shapes and sizes. DtB live is a dance party for some, a cosmic connection for others, a damn fine time for all. Their studio work is great, but clearly they thrive in the live format. For this NYE show, DtB simply killed, playing for three-plus-hours straight (minus a countdown, balloon drop and toast at midnight and a few moments before the encore) in a tight-but-loose, inspired and brilliant performance.
By the third tune, "Positive Friction," the band began to click and the crowd to gleefully respond as a swirling, gyrating mass. Singer and guitarist Jeb Puryear, eyes shut, head cocked, was clearly having a blast feeding off McCracken's slick, funky organ work while singing this infectious number.
|Donna The Buffalo :: 12.31.08 :: Asheville, NC|
Tara Nevins, the other half of the DtB nucleus with Puryear that's written the bulk of the material and stuck together over the years and personnel changes, looked beautiful in an all-black ensemble complete with leather boots and lace. She took up her third instrument of the young set by the fourth tune, "When the World's Got You Down," having moved from fiddle to washboard to an acoustic guitar while leading the crowd in this sing-along. Next, Nevins moved to the accordion for the blistering "Hot Tamale Baby," delivering a touch of zydeco, just one of the many influences DtB masterfully incorporates into a sound the spans the spectrum of American roots music. McCracken pumped the organ pedals to drive this one into a frenzy.
Nevins gave beautiful, emotional vocals to the "I Don't Need a Riddle" that followed. Then, the band paused while Puryear seared a haunting, bluesy solo intro into "Unforgiven." The disturbed poetry of this song presented a welcomed yin to the yang experienced thus far, revealing a sinister underbelly to the shining DtB rainbow. The Herd is full of open-minded positivity sure, but there are rude space-Nazis, guys stealing girlfriends and coke bumps busted in bathrooms, too - the full circle of the human existence. The band meshed in the middle of "Unforgiven" for a full-on freak-out improvisational jam, with Sanders slumped on the floor, Puryear leaning above him, wailing away while Nevins laid sharp fiddle work above it all.
A cover of Cash's "Ring of Fire" ushered in midnight, while band friend Greg Hurtt sang "Auld Lang Syne" just into 2009 in a years-long tradition for DtB's NYE gigs. The classic "Forty Days Forty Nights," with its dares of miracles, talk of indestructible love and exaltations to change the way you look and feel, proved an excellent choice to ring in the New Year. A bit later, Puryear evoked the Chinese proverb, "May you live in interesting times," that is a widely accepted curse, especially against the backdrop of the current Helter Skelter. But new horizons are dawning, and he further elaborated his point by pointing out a DtB gig in Virginia to run in conjunction with the celebrations surrounding Barack Obama's inauguration.
|Donna The Buffalo & The Believers - NYE Encore|
The hour had crept past 1 a.m. when the band stepped out to wild applause before launching into a four-song encore that included "Mystic Water" and sharing the stage with The Believers on their "Higher Ground," a paean to New Orleans marked by Nevins and Frazzini trading vocals for one of the night's top moments. The show ended with "No Place Like the Right Time," a grin-and-bear-it gem from the Donna the Buffalo canon that encapsulates their ethos. The opening line of "Crooked fence, chicken yard/ Life can be simple and still be hard" eventually moved into the refrain of "There's no place I can't find / There's no place, no place like the right time," as sublime a summation of the human condition as one can hope to find. If nothing else, this night in particular, NYE 2008 in Asheville with Donna the Buffalo, was the right place and the right time.
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