By: Will Black
Photo provided by: Hodi’s Half Note
Donna the Buffalo, which hails from New York and has been touring since 1989, graced the stage at Hodi’s Half Note Thursday. The quintet consists of accordionist/violinist/acoustic guitarist/vocalist Tara Nevins, electric guitarist/vocalist Jeb Puryear, keyboardist David McCracken, bassist Kyle Spark and drummer Mark Raudabaugh.
Nevins’ voice, less gravelly than Lucinda Williams’ and earthier than Mary Chapin Carpenter’s, bore the richness of a storyteller’s and catalyzed the country elements of the band’s sound. But the diversity of the instrumentation, much of which derives from Nevins’ effortless movement between her various instruments, pushed the show well beyond the bounds of the “country” label.
Donna the Buffalo plays with the kind of tightness that can only come from having made music together for years. Each member has a tremendous sense of space and a keen ear for his/her bandmates. The band is at its best when Puryear supplements Spark’s sparse yet insistent bass lines with economical guitar phrases, leaving plenty of room for Nevins to showcase her multiple talents.
The quintet moves as a single organism, allowing for fascinating exploration. One number began in a dark bass pocket enriched by a rhythm part from Nevins’ violin. After skillful interplay between Spark and Raudabaugh quickened the pace, Nevins’ bow put the finishing touches on a screeching climax. Then, Raudabaugh moved to his cymbals as Nevins and Puryear weaved a mellow soundscape to close the piece.
Nevins’ accordion sometimes infused the music with a zydeco flair that dared the crowd not to dance, but the instrument also added melancholy textures to pieces like “The Call.” McCracken’s organ was a welcome, lower-pitched complement to Nevins’ accordion on such numbers.
McCracken favored sustained chords, but often abandoned them for tasteful solos. His organ was not quite as bluesy as Gregg Allman’s and not nearly as frenetic as that of Rancid’s Kevin Bivona. But it approached each extreme at various points, and always added a compelling layer to the sound. It’s been a while since I’ve heard an organ accompany a violin.
It may be accurate to call Donna the Buffalo a country band, but to do so also feels like an oversimplification. The group’s tightness permits a degree of exploration not seen in ordinary country music, and the versatility of Nevins and her bandmates transforms the band again and again over the course of a performance.
Thursday’s show proved that, even after 30 years of existence, Donna the Buffalo remains an intriguing and original voice in the musical conversation.