Donna the Buffalo
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2008, Volume 15, #7
Written by John Metzger
Tue July 22, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Jam bands that improve with age are rare commodities. Witness the trials and tribulations that have surrounded the once mighty trifecta of Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic, and Phish. All three outfits have been stumbling aimlessly for the better part of the past decade, and their flashes of brilliance have become more and more infrequent with each passing year. Yet, these groups ó or in the case of Phish, their individual members ó continue to draw enough of a crowd whenever they perform that they typically serve as anchors for a certain segment of the summer seasonís festival circuit. With no one stepping up to replace the tired veteran acts, itís easy to see why fans, especially those who are focused upon the music rather than the scene, have lost hope that the genre will ever pull itself out of its downward spiral.
There is, however, a glimmer of light flickering on the horizon, and 2008 very well may prove to be the year in which everything turns around, at least for the roots-oriented side of the jam band scene. Its improbable resurrection has come from a pair of unlikely sources, too: In June, Railroad Earth recovered from its flawed affair The Good Life by unveiling Amen Corner, a career-defining collection of material that sounded less like a jam-friendly outing than it did a long-lost, Americana-imbued masterpiece. Following closely on its heels, Donna the Buffalo has issued Silverlined, a 13-track song cycle that puts to rest the notion that maturity and stagnation typically travel hand-in-hand. Although the set isnít quite on par with Railroad Earthís sparkling gemstone, it is a marked improvement over the groupís previous endeavors, which is saying something considering that the ensemble currently is celebrating the 21st year of its existence.
Like many of the better outfits on the jam band scene, Donna the Buffalo has, over the course of its career, built its reputation as much ó if not more ó on its ability to craft songs as it has upon its penchant for improvisation. Thematically, on Silverlined, as Tara Nevins weaves tales of troubled relationships and broken hearts, Jeb Puryear explores the global spectrum of politics and war in a troubled world. Using its past as a template, Donna the Buffalo, once again, folds reggae grooves around its folk-rock fare, and it neatly polishes the results without losing touch with the organic essence of its compositions. Without a doubt, Silverlined could have benefited from a better narrative flow, particularly during its latter half, but this seems to be the only piece to the puzzle that remains absent from the groupís formula.
Itís not an easy feat to intertwine material that was penned by two songwriters whose styles are strikingly different: Multi-instrumentalist Nevins favors arrangements that oscillate between the country musings of Dolly Parton and the alternative-pop forays of 10,000 Maniacs, while guitarist Puryearís contributions lean toward the gloriously ragged domains of Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. In truth, Nevins and Puryear are like night and day, and one undeniably couldnít survive ó or at least fare nearly as well ó without the other. Although they follow paths that initially appear to stand in opposition, their output has grown together, over time, to become highly complementary. Consequently, Donna the Buffalo is able to shift from the Bangles-meets-Go Gos romp of Broken Record to Meant to Beís strangely distinctive blend of Dylan and Fleetwood Mac to a complete fusion of The Beatles, the Grateful Dead, and Motown on Biggie K without skipping a beat.
Even so, itís the subtle touches that flicker through Silverlined that help not only to illuminate its individual tracks but also to bind the set together. Bela Fleckís banjo accompaniment skips gently beneath the surface of Locket and Key, for example, while the plot twist that occurs in The Call is both enhanced and countered by the luminescent guitar solo that carries the tune to its conclusion. Bands that have been around the block as many times as Donna the Buffalo typically begin to fall into repetitive patterns that reap diminishing returns. Breaking from the pack, the group called upon its friends ó David Hidalgo, Catherine Russell, and Amy Helm, among them ó to lend their quiet support to the affair. The result is that Silverlined is an understated endeavor that finds its resonance whenever listeners least expect it. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
Silverlined is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box