Thirty years on, the enduring upstate NY band Donna the Buffalo, returns with their first album in five years, intent to get us all dancing. Yes, this seems to be a set of material geared to their live shows and devoted fans, the Herd. It’s impossible to sit still or not tap your feet on every one of these tracks from the aptly named Dance in the Street. Dig just a little deeper and you’ll find their signature lyrics about social commentary and self-empowerment. But they have a way of making these messages fun like few can.
There are elements of rap and funk here in addition to their fiddle-driven bluegrass influences that co-leader Tara Nevins brings. She and co-leader/guitarist Jeb Puryear share writing and lead vocals as each has credit for six of the twelve in alternating sequence. Puryear’s title track echoes both Dylan and Bob Marley with these lyrics offered in slight rap/hip-hop fashion – “For change of rule. We had better stand,/Before there’s nowhere left to land/Doomed to histories repeat,/It’s time to dance in the street”
Nevins says her songs are about letting go, whether it’s an attachment of love lost, the past, or some bad mood you’re emerging from. Her “Look Both Ways” urges one to think before acting because “You may be smart but I’m smarter.” “I Won’t Be Looking Back’ speaks to a very high level of tolerance but not looking back once the limit is reached. Her other tunes are indeed about releasing oneself from clinging feelings or beliefs.
Puryear’s songs can be summarized with one exception (“Killing a Man”) by the blues song “I Love the Life I Live.” On the exception he talks about mercenary violence in the first person. It’s a difficult thing to write about when one has never done it like Puryear, but he claims that a Vietnam vet assured him that he nailed it emotionally.
Donna the Buffalo enlisted the support of acclaimed producer/engineer Rob Fraboni to record at the ever popular Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas. Fraboni is noted for his work with Dylan, The Band, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. He produced The Last Waltz soundtrack. He had the band record n a circle directly to tape, making a fully analog recording.
Donna the Buffalo is special stage presence. Puryear has observed that Vietnam vets have become a significant part of the fan base too. They have as tight a relationship with their fans as any band due to their messages of human spirit and a sound that’s difficult to pigeonhole. As mentioned, the country, old-timey, Cajun and Zydeco, rock n’ roll all meld together with even some new ones like rap and funk this time out.
Close your eyes on the last track and picture the festival crowd singing along with Nevins on the closing “I Believe.” They will be both dancing and singing. Maybe you will too.