Polished by the California sun and worn smooth by ocean breezes, The Donkeys’ music captures the past and makes it sound shiny and new.
September is a strange month -- a weird limbo that sits between the warm sun and gentle breezes of summer and the austere beauty of autumn. We’re not yet ready to relinquish the freedom and endless possibilities fueled by open windows and wide-open spaces. Luckily for us, that’s where The Donkeys arrive. Hailing from the land of sunshine known as San Diego, California, they’re not here to stop the changing of seasons or the passing of time. Yet, as a listener, it’s hard not to get caught up in their infectious style of psychedelia and forget where you are; their sound is a bubble filled with hazy, languid melodies. I’ve been following The Donkeys since their excellent self-titled debut, released in 2006. A little gem polished by the California sun and worn smooth by ocean breezes, the record managed to capture the musical past and make it sound shiny and new. Word of mouth, coupled with a well-received Daytrotter session last year, helped cement the four-piece as a band to watch. This show -- at the cozy, red-tinged little M-Room -- acted as an impromptu "release party" of sorts, coinciding, as it did, with the release of the band’s new album, Living on the Other Side. Building on the base established by their last album, Living on the Other Side is a celebration instead of introspection. Mixing elements of country, folk, and blues, and coating them all with a layer of vintage organ and slide guitar, the songs are simple and joyful. There are three singers in the band: Drummer Sam Sprague, bassist Timothy DeNardo, and Anthony Lukin, who handles the Rhodes. All three are gifted with incredibly sweet voices -- warm and inviting, especially when they join in unison. Live, the album's easygoing vibe is replaced with a steadfast focus. The songs are much tighter, building a wall of sound that can only be constructed by a band that has spent some time on the road. Feeding off the energy of each of its members, The Donkeys create something bigger and more dynamic than can be captured in album format. Opening with "Come on Virginia", one of the best tracks from the first album, Sprague and the band led the small (but devoted) audience through a set that bounced and grooved as it picked up speed, equal parts precision and loose improvisation.
The new album's first single, "Walk Through A Cloud", with its chugging bass and big harmonies, was one of the evening's many highlights. With a sprawling melody and noodling guitars borrowed straight from the bottomless vaults of classic rock, the song is undeniably catchy; it's hard to NOT sit and listen without feeling like you should be out in the sun on a back porch somewhere, cheap beer in hand. "Nice Train", with Lukin on lead vocals, is a tongue-in-cheek ode to the hipster. If not for the modern lyrics and the blues-y, jammy guitar line that ends the track, the song's pace reminded me of something that could have been utilized on the soundtrack to a sixties SoCal-style teen movie like Beach Blanket Bingo -- preferably a party scene where the protagonist sees the beach bunny girl of his dreams for the very first time. The band closed their short set with an extended version of the masterful "No Need for Oxygen", also from their self-titled album. The track that spawned my love affair with The Donkeys, every note is shimmery and deliberate; the dreamy melody ebbs and flows and hangs in the air in such a way that it feels almost tangible. As the song seemed to draw to a close, the band seamlessly picked up the pace and transformed it into a full-on freak out jam session before slowly and gently lowering the audience back down to Earth. With Living on the Other Side, The Donkeys have crafted and encapsulated a little bit of summer for us listeners to visit whenever we need an escape. The band covers ground that’s been explored by many, both imitators and innovators, but their ramshackle charm and laidback attitude makes it seem effortless and unique. My only regret is that, like summer itself, their set wasn't longer.