The mixing of progressive politics and music is not new, but the combo here is especially intriguing. Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s, has joined Donna the Buffalo and Peter Rowan for a string of dates that will cover the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and dip into the Midwest between now and early December.
Billed as “The Stampede,” the collective will be encouraging audience members to purchase a stamp and mark currency with messages like “NOT 2B USED 2 BRIBE POLITICIANS.” Cohen has been a vocal opponent of large corporations’ influence over politics for years now. Donna the Buffalo co-founder Jeb Puryear got interested in the movement after hearing Cohen speak. “The Stampede” was born.
Last night in suburban Philadelphia’s Ardmore Music Hall, the herd started its charge with an engaging, poignant, and jamming tour kick-off.
Of course, when you mix in a legendary bodhisattva like Peter Rowan, this eclectic dynamic gets more interesting still. After Ben Cohen gave a pre-amble to the Stampede movement, Rowan played a beautiful seven-song solo acoustic set featuring songs spanning his remarkable, Grammy-winning 50-year career, all the way up to tunes from his 2014 gem Dharma Blues.
Donna the Buffalo followed with a long set of their signature danceable, joyous tunes, and whipped their dedicated following, The Herd, into a frenzy.
Donna the Buffalo’s pull has always been about the yin-and-yang of its two founding members and twin songwriters. That positive friction showed up in the second number of the night, Tara Nevins’ “If You Only Could.” There’s a glorious interplay of Nevins’ focused and delicate high-country soar and Puryear’s heart-on-his-sleeve plaintive delivery.
As Puryear arches back from his wailing Stratocaster, eyes rolled back in his skull, Nevins’ rollicking fiddle, accordion, and scrub board powers the sound through tune after head-nodding, feet-tapping tune. With David McCracken’s face-melting organ work making that Leslie spin, it’s a great mix. And it has been for the better part of 25 years. Donna the Buffalo is a band you can take anyone to, and no matter their musical disposition, it’s impossible for them not to devolve into a face-splitting grin.
Watch the full show here:
The night really kicked in mid-set with the newer tune “Let’s Make This Easier on Ourselves.” The band locked in, and the energy spilled over into the McCracken’s showcase organ, setup to the syncopated jamming of “Heaven and Earth.” When Nevins pulled out the accordion for the first time for “I Just Don’t Wanna Be Lonely,” the Herd was set in the groove and the blissful throb that is a DTB show was a squirming amoeba.
Nevins’ fierce determination and dedication to the fan base that follows DTB is fascinating and refreshing. There’s clearly nothing transitory or false when you hear her sing a song like the late-set “Family Picture”:
The world is a wondrous puzzle
Everyone a piece and every piece fits
Every piece is alive making energy
Energy pulls the pieces together
There’s also no mystery why a song off 2013’s Tonight, Tomorrow and Yesterday, “I Love My Tribe,” is such a favorite. It’s not marketing.
When I approached Nevins pre-show to ask for help from her road manager in grabbing a set list to ensure accuracy, she curtly responded “We don’t do set lists. We never do set lists. Our fans sometimes write up our set lists.” It was intimidating and direct, and I’ve never liked an artist more. There’s a pride to doing it on your own and building your following, and living in the glorious moment you’ve carved.
Puryear stepped over with a grin and said, “Yeah, we’ll figure out how to get you one.”
It’s that balance that keeps a band together, and vibrant, and vital, for 25 years.
It’s what they do. For 25 years, it’s what they do.
And then when you see 73 year-old Rowan retake the stage for a night-closing mini-set, position himself between Puryear and Nevins, and jump into the role he’s held forever—band leader—it’s nothing short of inspiring. The little look he gives McCracken when the organ piece comes in a bar too late, or the almost imperceptible change of expression when Puryear does one solo too many, it’s obvious he still cares so much.
Of course, when you are raised by one of the most demanding band leaders American music has known, Bill Monroe, there must be hard habits to break. When you’ve literally changed the landscape of American music with David Grisman off one shoulder and Jerry Garcia off the other, you learn to get it all right. He’s putting on a show for you. It should be a great show. It’s his job.
It’s what he does. For 50 years, it’s what he does.