Larry Carlin
Larry Carlin


The Donner Party

Is talented bluegrass band cannibalizing self to stay young?

By Matt Kramer
Pacific Sun
August 11, 2006

Sometimes it seems that bluegrass musicians and performers are getting younger and younger. And, if I can believe what my usually reliable brother says about the music his soon to be 10-year-old daughter is currently listening to, I suppose the same thing happens in more mainstream music, too. During the past couple of years, quite a few youthful (and talented) acoustic and bluegrass bands have rolled through our county: Hit & Run Bluegrass, King Wilkie, and now, here comes The Donner Mountain Bluegrass Band.

This youthful quintet headlines the next edition of the Bluegrass Gold series Wednesday night at the Sweetwater. Donner Mountain is an up-and coming California-based band featuring, like the aforementioned Hit & Run Bluegrass band, a couple of talented young women mixed in among the good ol' boys

As young as they are, the Donner Mountain Bluegrass Band has been together for five years. Their first recording, a self-titled CD, was produced back in 2003. (A follow-up is due sometime soon.) The recording features fourteen toe-tapping tracks, many of them scorchers, but with a few ballads included for balance. Although it's not representative of the current line-up, it's provided me an introduction to this Santa Cruz brand of bluegrass, and I have been enjoying it, especially this sunny early Sunday morning as I'm writing. It's more of a Sunday morning eye-opener than the mug of organic Fair Trade coffee steaming atop my writing desk. I haven't heard a clunker in the entire batch.

"Walls of Time" features a deeper male vocal lead than I usually hear in bluegrass, singing an upbeat death song that's got an irresistible old time, rock and roll aspect to it.

The mandolin-and-fiddle driven "Wheel Hoss" features current violinist Annie Staninec, who was sixteen at the time the recording was made, sounding at the end like a freight train in full steam. She's been playing violin since she was five and with the equal ease she demonstrates with fire and finesse, it seems all those years of lessons have paid off.

The make-up of the band was quite different when the disc was recorded: two guitarists as compared to the current configuration that's replaced one male guitarist with a female banjo-slinger. Donner Mountain has also brought in a new mandolin player; in fact, bassist Dave Gooding is the sole survivor of the band's three founding fathers. I thought perhaps this shuffling was akin to the band, Menudo, in that its performers had to retire when they'd reached a certain age. I have been assured that this is untrue, but not yet ordered by the court to stop spreading such libelous assumptions.

On their website, you'll find some mp3s that feature the band's current configuration, recorded live. The dual lead vocals on "True Life Blues" are reminiscent of old-time classics, and there's a brief banjo break in there that gave me my first pleasant earful of Frankie Nagle's fretwork.

As on its CD, the band can still play lightning fast, as demonstrated by "Hillcrest Drive," which provides a more rounded introduction to the band's banjo, mandolin, and fiddling skills. Besides being an instrumental ensemble that seems welded together seamlessly, Donner Mountain Bluegrass Band now includes much more dual singing, and harmonizing, than before. The sound quality's not the best on those live mp3s, but that just brings me back to what I'm always telling everyone including myself: pull yourself away from your computer and treat your eyes and ears to some live music.



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