Live From the American Ballroom
Donna the Buffalo
(Wildlife Management WM001)
by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It took a number of people years to put together the phenomena known as the Grateful Dead. While the Dead did their time on the road, others collected tapes, built databases of set lists, and designed colorful posters overflowing with roses and skeletons. Years later, thousands followed the Dead from show to show, and even the non-believing masses knew what a Deadhead was. Today, the jam band, complete with dedicated followers and a catchy nickname for its fans, has become a staple of American music.
Donna the Buffalo started creating its own niche in jam-band land in 1987. Their accordion-fueled, Cajun folk rock, and multiple singers, has attracted a crowd of followers called The Herd. Like other jam bands, the faithful insist that the band sounds best live, and the band encourages the taping of shows.
Donna the Buffalo, nonetheless, differ from their competitors in a couple of ways. First, guitarist Jeb Puryear, accordionist Tara Nevins, guitarist Jim Miller, organist Richie Stearns, bassist Jed Greenberg, and drummer Tom Gilbert play with a rhythmical furry. Songs like "Tides of Time," filled with an insistent Cajun accordion, seem ready made for high stepping in the stadium aisles. The band also takes political stances with a liberal slant. America's lyrics travel back to the 1980s to comment on Ollie North and Three Mile Island, while Push Comes to Shove makes a reference to "Wall Street bloodsuckers."
Nevins has written most of the standout material on Live from the American Ballroom, including fun, bouncy versions of Family Picture, Living in Babylon, and the closer, There Must Be. The trill of her delivery also gives her vocals a distinctive flavor. Unfortunately, many of Donna the Buffalo's songs have a similar, two-step Cajun-reggae beat. This built-in structure traps the musicians, and never allows room for their solo work to really soar. This seems especially constricting when a number of pieces extend beyond the nine-minute mark. Even when the musicians do attempt to give flight to their fancy, as at the end of "If You Only Could," the soloists stop and start, deflating the emotional intensity.
The Herd will probably ignore these criticisms, as Deadheads disregarded the gallons of ink spilled disparaging Garcia and company. And in a way, they're right to do so. Donna the Buffalo, Leftover Salmon, and the String Cheese Incident transcend specific criticisms because they end up being about more than their music. To identify so strongly with a band, attend a number of shows, and hang out with other followers, seems more akin to religion than entertainment. For the faithful, Live from the American Ballroom offers a two-hour portable service, certain to recharge one's spiritual batteries.