Donna the Buffalo: Live from the American Ballroom

Andrew Gilstrap

Donna the Buffalo

Live from the American Ballroom

Label: Wildlife Music
US Release Date: 2002-01-15

Yeah, Donna the Buffalo are a jam band, a designation that conjures up images of tie-dies, a dancing style that was surely born on a boneless chicken ranch, and noodling improvs that go on so long you feel like geological epochs are passing. Adored by veteran Deadheads and college kids around the nation, there is, for every jam band that seems to be offering something, a jam band that could kill any buzz.

Fifteen years into their career (but with a scant four studio albums to their collective name), Donna the Buffalo have thankfully proven themselves to be one of the bright spots. The band boasts three lead singers (two male, one female), and a variety of instrumentation (vocalist Tara Nevins plays guitar, fiddle, and -- perhaps most importantly -- accordion and scrub board). On their studio records, they've always been succinct (which Phish got lambasted for on Billy Breathes, but which seems to work pretty well for moe.). Their last studio record, Positive Friction was aptly named, coursing with energy and life. Songs like "Riddle of the Universe", "In Another World", and "Family Picture" offered an intriguing blend of reggae ease, Cajun boogie, and smart rock chops. When it's firing on all cylinders, Donna the Buffalo's accordion-driven sound is pretty much irresistible.

Like any jam band worth their salt, though, Donna the Buffalo's lifeline is the road. They tour incessantly, and have built a solid fan base because of it. Perhaps as a thank-you, perhaps as a souvenir of their 2001 tour, they offer up Live from the American Ballroom. It immediately succeeds on one count: the sheer infectiousness of the band's grooves and rhythms comes through immediately, as does the band's ultra-positive vibe. Those two elements alone go a long way towards validating any live recording.

On the quibbling side, it's not the best recording in the world, varying slightly from locale to locale (although the vocals are clear and the pedal steel guitar on "Riddle of the Universe" comes across particularly well). Overall, it sounds like a really good soundboard recording of the type that members of the Herd (Donna the Buffalo's followers) trade on a regular basis. It's a minor point -- you expect a little more luster from a professional release -- but it does negate the crackle found on several of the songs' studio versions.

That's compounded by the fact that, again, Donna the Buffalo is a jam band. Nine of the set's 15 songs ease over the seven-minute mark (three make it over ten minutes); on several occasions, this seems like overkill. Each song, taken on its own, works perfectly well, but Donna the Buffalo aren't particularly cosmic or probing in their jams. Instead of going off into wildly uncharted waters, they prefer to gently explore each song's existing structure. Apart from "Conscious Evolution", which breaks into a spry rendition of "Workin' on a Building", it's hard to justify several of these extended romps (on record, anyway; in a live setting, the Herd dances the night away with nary a complaint). Over the course of two CDs, several of the songs lose their personality and blend together. Donna the Buffalo's sound is infectious, but at times, a little same-ness can creep in.

Still, Live from the American Ballroom is a pretty darn good introduction to the band. It borrows from their catalog pretty evenly, and the band's strengths come through clearly. For those more familiar with some of the band's stellar studio work (Positive Friction and Rockin' in the Weary Land are especially worth checking out), a little disappointment might crop up now and then. That's the trade-off you make with live recordings, though. You sacrifice a little sheen in favor of a vibe or an experience, and Live from the American Ballroom definitely illustrates why this band's flourished for over a decade.





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.