Sugar Magnolia


Rockin’ in the weary land? I’ll say. Out here in the smog, bouncing across the potholes with the volume cranked, it’s, like, really nice, Donna the Buffalo pumping in fresh air, the flash and feeling of rivers and falls and farms and fields, the eagles flying with the doves, lions laying down with lambs. Then too it’s also like, say, Ralph Stanley sitting in with Bob Marley’s Reggae/Zydeco All Stars, and that’s beyond nice. That’s great!

You kids today, you’re fuckin’ lucky. You get a tribal band that can keep a beat. The rhythm section and the lead players actually inhabit the same space-time continuum. I mean, percussion’s fine, and we hippies had lots of it, all kinds, couldn’t fit enough on a stage usually, but rhythm, well, gee. Quicksilver Messenger Service were about as close as we got, and then only when they tracked Bo Diddley beat like beagles on a fox. The Dead, rhythm-impaired to begin with, lost the trail for good when Pigpen took the dirt nap.

Still, the Dead are where you have to start when you talk Donna the Buffalo. It’s not just the hempy thing, the mysticism, the self-contained economy, the tepees and minibuses, the extended-family fans, all that Son of Hippie horde-y stuff. Here you actually have musicians of the Dead’s generation mixed in with the kids in the band (age range: 21 to 50). And you have music from first-generation seeds: the old-time folk and country with which Garcia and many of his peers began, not the hybrid with which he ended. Donna the Buffalo is a string band run through the electric warp, like the Dead and a few others, notably Newgrass Revival, and as in those cases, the results are nothing if not distinctive. No other band on earth sounds at all like them. There may not even be one that could.

So how do they sound? You’ve got the basis— Ralph Stanley sitting in with Bob Marley’s Reggae/Zydeco All Stars— but for a clearer picture you need more complexity: add early Talking Heads, King Sunny Ade, Mr. George Jones, selected Beatles tracks, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, this Kentucky fiddler, that Baton Rouge accordionist. Catch the Donnas on a comfortable night when they’ve cranked it up into a jam, taking off from one of singer-guitarist Jeb Puryear’s groove songs (“Conscious Evolution” and “Funky Side” are great ones), and really, you hear all those threads twist and tug and tangle together, push and pull, surge and slap, gets hypnotic pretty quick. And then you morph the metaphor and start seeing little balls bouncing around inside the big one, all sizes. It’s not confusing, though, not a bit. The dance beat always pops right out at you. And “tight” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

DB don’t jam as a matter of course. “In fact, we’re going in the other direction,” says singer-songwriter-instrumentalist Tara Nevins, whose accordion and rub-board are so vital to the propulsion of the band. “We used to think every song had to be 12 minutes.” That’s why their earliest recordings, on cassette only, should be approached (at or Wildlife Management, P.O. Box 287, Trumansburg NY 14886) with interest informed by caution. Dump the caution, however, for Donna the Buffalo and the Ones You Love, as well as Rockin’ in the Weary Land, on Sugar Hill, as close to the major-label orifice of Mammon as the band, together 10 years and profitable for “several,” is currently willing to venture. They’ve done well on the road, working clubs and festivals, slowly building an ardent fan base (“the herd,” they call themselves), and for the past several years they’ve organized the annual Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival in northwestern New York (68 acts in ’98, including Altan and Toots and the Maytals). This event owes more to the old summer bluegrass-festival circuit than to recent H.O.R.D.E. tours. “We’re quite experienced, and not at all naive,” says Nevins.

Naive, no. Positive, yes. Spiritual, certainly. Clear-eyed? Depends. If you cleave to the belief that we’re all just pissant pinballs banging around in the big arcade, then the lyrics of Puryear and Nevins are not for you. But neither zealots nor antireligionists will find inflammatory doctrine in their words, just softcore naturalistic theosophy, often quite nicely expressed. Refreshing, in fact. As previously mentioned. And ultimately, any excuse for a groove will suffice in a band of DB’s rhythmic commitment. Even a song as lyrically weak (if deeply felt) as Puryear’s “Let Love Move Me” has you funking along like a happy little chicken.

So go ahead, pick your nits. Does Nevins sound too fragile? Does Puryear drone? Can’t they sing anything mean? Why aren’t they pierced?

I don’t care. I’ve called these guys my favorite band so often, I must really mean it. So be grateful. If they can do me the way they do, they can sure as sugar magnolia do you too. Peace.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 2, 1999

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