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.