Donna the Buffalo aren’t a folk act, per se. While they incorporate elements of folk, zydeco, country, and Cajun music, the group remains, first and foremost, a rock ‘n roll band. And, they have a special ability: if you’re already feeling fine, they take you higher. Conversely, if you’re down in the dumps, these guys pick you up by the collar and pull until they’ve got you standing up straight. And, after a day-long downpour—one which seems to have scared off the students who would normally wander downtown from campus—spirits could use a little lifting.
Tonight’s crowd is older than one would expect in a college town like Kent, but perhaps it’s because the show is part of the 40th Annual Kent Folk Festival, an event which generally appeals to an audience with a greater appreciation for music history. It’s a shame, because, whatever your age, it’s impossible not to feel a little bit more optimistic after hearing the band play inspired songs about transcending life’s emotional difficulties.
These days, it seems like there’s a genuine scarcity of rock bands with vital female contributors, a shame since Donna the Buffalo’s Tara Nevins is clearly a world-class talent. Switching back and forth between acoustic guitar, electric fiddle, accordion, and scrubboard, Nevins is a multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, and her accordion prowess on high-energy zydeco rock tune “Tides of Time” gets the audience dancing every time.
Nevins is also an extremely soulful singer-songwriter, one that could stand with better-known talents like Stevie Nicks, Sheryl Crow, and the Dixie Chicks any day. Her voice is reminiscent of a Natalie Merchant, but Nevins adds a little more grit to the mix. She breaks out Donna the Buffalo’s classic “Living in Babylon” early in the show and the audience begins swaying to the up-tempo beat. Like many of the band’s songs, “Babylon” encourages the listener to take a deeper look at society: “Two little babies lying in a bed/ One rolled over to the other and said/ Take this life you’ve got and live it well/ Don’t get caught living under the spell.”
Guitarist Jeb Puryear, the band’s other primary songwriter, lends a uniquely laidback vibe to the proceedings while still managing to rock out. He and Nevins trade lead-vocal duties, and their rich harmonies on the choruses create a single, soul-soothing sound. A prime example of this effect is demonstrated on “If You Only Could,” when Puryear and Nevins create an overlapping harmony so sweet, it’s like musical manna for the soul.
Rounded out by keyboardist Kathy Zeigler, bassist Bill Reynolds, and drummer Tom Gilbert, the band rock straight through a solid two hour set. The new “Locket and Key” sees them creating a tight, urgent vibe. It’s toward the end of the set when the band plays Donna the Buffalo staple “Conscious Evolution,” a tune based around a “Not Fade Away”-style vamp that Puryear uses to take the listener on a spiritual and metaphysical exploration: “Jesus said to Buddha give Mohammed a call/ Conscious evolution is the writing on the wall.” This leads into an extended jam that sees the band open the simple vamp into an extended melodic exploration.
Puryear closes the evening’s encore with “Seems to Want to Hurt This Time,” a soulful mid-tempo tune about the dichotomy of love and loss. Nevins adds some smooth fiddle on top, sending the show out with a wistful, yet cathartically healing, vibe as Puryear returns to the chorus’ apropos sentiment: “Aw, the party’s crashin’/ Fade into a distant drone/ It only takes just one of us to be alone/ Nobody’s going but I still feel left behind/ Everything seems to want to hurt this time.”
Of course, by the time the show really ends, no one is really hurting.