Jim Lauderdale & Donna The Buffalo – Odyssey (Ithaca, NY)
Jim Lauderdale was an instant fan from the moment he saw Donna The Buffalo perform at Merlefest in 1998. They crossed paths again on the Newport Folk Festival tour that summer, and cemented their kinship onstage at Telluride the following year.
In retrospect, what the country singer saw in the genre-jumping band was players having a joyous time, with a dayglo spirituality and a solid groove in their country-reggae-zydeco to match his most rocking and eclectic songs. What they saw in him was a kindred spirit brought up on the mountain music they love, with the classic/cosmic country aura of his hero Gram Parsons.
“Donna Sings Jim,” as he calls it, is a whole other sideline for a songwriter who has collaborated with the likes of Harlan Howard, Ralph Stanley and Buddy Miller. Lauderdale is one of the family now at Donna The Buffalo’s Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival, a midsummer revel of culture-hopping world and roots music in upstate New York. The singer knows he can have a little fun as the country boy surrounded by hippies.
Returning like a brother from college to kick off Donna The Buffalo’s annual holiday weekend in mid-December, Lauderdale was dressed not in tie-dye but an electric-blue embroidered suit. Playing under a peace sign made of holly leaves and white lights, on a converted Masonic theater stage flanked by snowmen and menorahs, at that.
Per his usual format, Lauderdale played the first couple tunes alone, acoustic but forceful (“Three Way Conversation”) and tender (“Onward Through It All”). Next, Donna guitarist Jim Miller joined in to provide the Stanley vocal harmony on “I Will Wait For You”.
The band then launched into “This Is The Big Time”, with Tara Nevins’ soulful fiddle solos unspooling over Miller’s country picking, Lauderdale and Miller’s vocals, Jeb Puryear’s gliding pedal steel, Jed Greenberg’s bass and Tom Gilbert’s drums.
For a guy so soft-spoken and down-home in conversation, Lauderdale is transformed onstage, all soul-shouting fervor and sexual energy on “Life By Numbers” and “Divide And Conquer”. Donna shifts rhythmic gears with him, going from the jazzy “It’s A Trap” to the bossa nova “We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This”, then slowing things down for “That’s Not The Way It Works” and “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me”.
Lauderdale also came here to do some long-promised writing and recording with the band, so they debut a new song hammered out earlier that day, “This World’s Getting Mean”, in a shambling but powerful old-time mountain gospel arrangement. They also deliver Merle Haggard’s “The Fugitive” and Lauderdale’s signature rocker “Halfway Down”, two songs Miller covered on his solo CD.
By the encore — total rock ‘n’ roll, the Beatles’ “Slow Down” — the crowd was sweating along with them. Lauderdale headed for the club’s lounge to chat with fans while Marie Burns’ acoustic country combo performed.
After a break, the host band choogled through their own unflagging set until well past 1 a.m., with another night and a day of music ahead, backing Louisiana zydeco master Preston Frank. Plus studio time for more new songs with Lauderdale, destined for one of three albums he wants to release this year, and for another collaborative set at this year’s Merlefest — where it all began.