Donna the Buffalo | 11.06 & 11.07 | Lincoln Theatre | Raleigh, NC

Donna the Buffalo is an American institution. Bursting out of Ithaca, NY in 1987, they've become a permanent fixture on the American festival circuit, adding new fans to their flock at each stop. Their singular blend of rock, zydeco, reggae, Cajun, and folk always leads to a foot-stomping musical celebration. Their two-night stand at Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre included an opening slot by Jim Lauderdale on the second night, with Donna as his band. The country-blues-grass singer's latest album Wait 'Til Spring also features Donna, and hit the Number four slot on Americana charts.

Bassist Jed Greenberg is in the process of leaving Donna the Buffalo to pursue other endeavors. However, it's a very friendly split, so the first night of the run featured Asheville, NC's Bill Reynolds sitting in on bass. Greenberg was on hand for the second night, where he also joined Donna in backing up Lauderdale for his opening set.

They opened up the weekend with "Movin' On." Jeb Puryear, whose world beat guitar shares lead duties with the country-rock exploits of Jim Miller, belted out the lyrics, setting the course for the hours of music to come: "Renewed spirit and a brave brave heart/I’ll face the odds and conquer I shall/The future's all there is to me/'Cause I'm movin' on now." They followed with "Tides of Time," which featured lead vocals by Miller's multi-instrumentalist wife Tara Nevins. The jubilant bounce and sing-along chorus had the audience whipped into an early frenzy. They continued with "Positive Friction," a definite crowd favorite, with Jeb pleading to the audience, "Let's get together and become natural once again." The catchy melody and buoyant bass give the song an added velocity and urgency, with Kathy Zeigler's colorful keyboards and the relentless, driving pulse of Tom Gilbert's drums rounding out the sound.

One of the great aspects of Donna's concerts is you never know which card they're about to deal you. At any point, you could be launched into an epic two-guitar jam, sent to the swamps inside a deep zydeco knee bending groove, or have a tear brought to your eye with a forlorn folksy ballad. Their ability to blend these elements together into a cohesive whole is what gives the band their undeniable power and popular appeal. The intention is the celebration.

"The Ones You Love" led into the pop-boogie and jangly twang of "Forty Days & Forty Nights," featuring Nevins' bright and breezy acoustic guitar. She seems to drift between being the focal point of the band and their secret weapon. From tasteful fiddle additions on "Visitor" to Cajun accordion and scrub-board scratch in the band's zydeco excursions, to sweet, plaintive vocals on "Rock of Ages," her command over the music seems to come effortlessly.

The show rolled on with the stomprag peaks of "Part-Time Lover" and a long, quiet jam in "America." The lyrics to "Family Picture" illustrate their notion of an all-encompassing band, traveling the country spreading positive vibes to all who will listen, with Nevins singing: "Sure as the sunrise it doesn't matter the shape of the hat/It all fits together in a family picture/And every wall's got room for that." She elaborates further in "Livin' on Love and Gasoline," singing, "Sunrise, the whole world sees/All that lays before is made for you and me/Real love makes the world dance/Universal language stands a fighting chance."

The anthemic groove of "Funkyside" appeared toward the end of the set, bursting into a huge, glorious jam led by Puryear's lead guitar. He also took lead vocal duties on the first encore number, where his soulful, heartfelt voice added a poignant touch to the protest lyrics of "Current Theme." After Nevins' love song "No Place Like the Right Time," they wrapped things up with an explosive rendition of "Hot Tamale Baby." The Lincoln Theatre was pounding along with their furious salsa-flavored Cajun stomp as the first night drew to a close.

Friday's show started with an opening set by Jim Lauderdale, who began his set on solo guitar, running through "Hummingbird," "It's a Trap," "Three Way Conversation," and "I Will Wait for You" before Donna's Jim Miller came out to join him on second guitar. After they played "Lost in the Lonesome Pines," the rest of Donna the Buffalo emerged to become Lauderdale's band for the rest of his set. Donna fans that skipped the opening act were kicking themselves once they finally arrived. They ran through about half of the Wait 'Til Spring album and tore through "Life By Numbers," "Upside Down," and the set-closing "Halfway Down."

Donna's second night setlist was almost entirely different from the first, opening with "Way Back When," "Ancient Arms," "Voice in My Head," and "Blue Skies." They followed with the beautiful, rarely played Jennie Stearns song "Life is Strange," featuring a passionate, worldly wisdom in Miller's vocals: "Life is strange, life is good, life is all that it should be." They immediately cranked up the pace again with the thumping trance-groove of "These Are Better Days," featuring some of their most sincere sentiments: "You can't only complain, you know/You've got to give the world a place to go/All the people gathering around/Rising up on a magic sound/Heavy pressure caused the glow to shine/A spirited push to change the paradigm/All the happy people sing in a praise/These are better days."

After pumping through more songs, including "Standing Room Only," "In Another World," and "Greatest Love of All," they wrapped up the set with an emotionally gripping version of John Lennon's cathartic "Mother." Jim Lauderdale returned to join Donna for the encore, lending vocals to "Different Kind of Lightning," "Georgia Peach," and the raucous Larry Williams classic "Slow Down." After Lauderdale and his excellent shirt waved goodnight, Donna continued with "Yonder" before finally wrapping things up with the universal-destiny-poeticism of "On Our Way On."

Donna the Buffalo finished up their two-night stand to a sold-out crowd and left them screaming for more. Their infectious hooks and positive vibrations seem to continuously get more powerful. As the words to "Forty Days and Forty Nights" reflect, the band instills a love and passion not just for what is, but for what could be: "Connected to the earth and the sky/By the vibrations of the Almighty/In the elevations through Nature's bliss/We could be connected just like this."

Paul Kerr
JamBase | North Carolina
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[Published on: 1/8/04]

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