‘Sometimes chaos can breed cool things’
SARANAC LAKE – At the beginning of our conversation, Tara Nevins had only limited memory of the marathon show her band, Donna the Buffalo, played here two Winter Carnivals ago – but she sure remembered the weather.
“I don’t think I’d ever been in a place where it’s been so much snow and so cold,” she told the Enterprise in a phone interview to preview Donna the Buffalo’s return to the Waterhole during Winter Carnival on Thursday, Feb. 7 – part of the bar’s beefy Carnival music lineup this year. “I remember the whole town; if you remember, the roads were like these little pathways through mounds and mounds of snow. You remember that? It was great. It was insane! It was so cold, too. But anyway “
“No, I totally remember that,” I said. “I was at that show. Now, word was – and correct me if I’m wrong – that the bus broke down. And you guys were late and the opening act ended up playing longer to fill some time, and when you guys finally arrived and took the stage, I remember you guys looking pretty tired. … But you seemed to, after a little while of playing, get a second wind, and you ended up playing really, really late – so late that when I left to go home around 2 a.m., you guys were still going.”
“Huh,” she replied. “I don’t remember the time. Well, maybe because we were a little late, we felt bad, and we played longer. Sometimes we do that.”
And then the details seemed to start coming back to her.
“Yeah, our bus broke down, but it wasn’t a terrible break – I mean, we broke down, but it wasn’t like we were sitting on the side of the road forever, stressing. We stressed for a little bit.”
“So what I remember,” I said, “watching you guys – and I’ve seen you a few times now – when you all settle into a groove, it kind of seems like everyone in the band goes into something of a trance. That’s kind of what it looks like from the perspective of the audience. Is that what it feels like to you onstage?”
“Yeah, when it’s going good, you get lost in it, absolutely,” she said. “And you’re just inside it. You’re not thinking about how you look or what people are thinking; you’re just kind of lost inside. It’s kind of like you’re riding a wave; you kind of go with it.”
“Does it depend to a certain degree on the audience?”
“Everything depends on everything,” she said, repeating that sentence for impact. “Like, for instance, that night, there was a tension in the air, we arrived, the weather was insane, and like, you couldn’t believe how much snow there was and how cold it was. It made the whole thing a crazy adventure, getting there. And you get there, and you’re all riled up from getting there, and then people there are kind of tense ’cause you’re late, and then everybody pitching in to help us bring everything in, and I remember we’re dragging in, and the doors are open, and the cold is getting in and muddy feet and they have the snow – everything is coming into the place, and it’s crazy and it’s a mess, and we get onstage – finally – and we play, and the place warms up, and we probably, you know, have a little drink to warm our insides up, or something. And the audience is totally – it’s a big audience, they’ve been waiting. They’re excited. Now our energy has built up, and the whole thing kind of comes together in a big combustion, sort of.
“So sometimes chaos can breed cool things, and I just think every little ingredient makes a show what it becomes.”
Donna the Buffalo hails from Trumansburg, a small Finger Lakes village near Ithaca. Electric guitarist Jeb Puryear, Nevins’ fellow founding member who shares songwriting and singing duties with her, still lives there. Nevins – who plays fiddle, guitar, accordion, washboard and tambourine – lives in Piermont, on the Hudson River near the Tappan Zee Bridge. The other three members live in the South: Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
I asked her what’s different about upstate New York bands, since she has known so many of them but also toured so extensively.
“I don’t think there is anything different about them,” she replied firmly. “I think a band is a band. I think there are inspired people everywhere. I think there are bands that spring out of small-town communities everywhere. I think there are bands that come out of college towns everywhere. I think there are bands that come out of living off the streets of the biggest cities in the world that are everywhere. I don’t think there’s anything that particularly happened in the rural setting of New York state that doesn’t happen in the rural settings all around the world.”
It was in a small college town in the North Country, actually, that Nevins switched from playing classical violin, which she had done since she was 5, to old-time fiddling. During her four years attending the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, she joined the St. Regis River Valley String Band and played all over the region.
“That was my stomping ground,” she said.
After college she immersed herself in fiddle fests, and when Donna the Buffalo formed, they were all old-time musicians. But soon they picked up electric instruments and got deeply into Cajun, zydeco, reggae, African and country music, somehow spinning all that into a signature sound.
Donna the Buffalo is as much an outdoor festival band as any ever was. In 1991 it founded the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival in Trumansburg, which later spawned sister fests in North Carolina and Florida. Music festivals have exploded in recent years, and Nevins loves it.
“I think the festival scene right now is awesome,” she said. “I think festivals have become the thing of now.
“The festival circuit is kind of becoming its own great culture that brings together so many different kinds of people. It says this music is for everyone; this music is for you. People come to festivals, and they go away feeling really inspired about life and about themselves, and they feel rejuvenated, and they feel positive and hopeful.”
She also likes that festivals have become more musically diverse, breaking down the old barriers between bluegrass, rock, folk and jam band fests, for example.
“It’s just making more music accessible to the general populace,” she said. “Everyone wants to be outside in the sun, listening to music, feeling good, smiling at your neighbor, having a great time and going home and remembering all of this, meeting new people – ‘Are you going to that next festival? I’ll see you there.’ It just creates community.”