All words: Alan Pyke — All photos: Kara Capelli
The Donkeys self-titled record a few years back was full of a syrupy darkness that helped link the San Diego quartet’s genre-smoothie sound, but seeing them live it’s clear that it’s sunshine (and possibly bikinis) that animates this band. Their songs touch on country here and hint at the psychedelic there, but never stray too far from SoCal beach pop. In front of maybe 50 people in the Black Cat Backstage’s little rock-n-roll cave, they combined with two local openers for a mellow, foot-tapping Tuesday night.
Friends assure me I missed out by getting there too late to catch The Rememberables’ opening set, but I’m glad I caught Shark Week. I’d heard good things, and chalked a lot of that up to the disproportionate number of Discovery Channel shark dorks in my life, but sure enough they’re more than just a good band name. It’s bluesy, bouncy, rumbling stuff, and damned enjoyable even if they sometimes skip past where you think the solo should be. And they were a good set-up for The Donkeys, similar in feeling but different enough in sound that the two sets felt complementary rather than repetitive.
The difference in energy between a Donkeys record and this Donkeys show was subtle, but there’s something about seeing how much these guys enjoy playing that takes the whole experience in a happier direction. Nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. More than once they let one of their simple core riffs boil over. These guys don’t skip solos. They don’t vamp either, but there’s some Tom Petty DNA in there, some urge to wail buried in these poppy hooks. It’s pleasure music, soundtrack rock for the indie comedy montage where Our Hero is seen ditching all his bad habits to get The Girl back.
The comparisons to Pavement are right on the money, though there’s no pretending the two are equals. “Ceiling Tan,” from last year’s Born With Stripes and with lyrical allusions to Sirhan Sirhan and bruised bodies, sounds especially Pavement-y and was a highlight of their set. They can fairly claim deeper rock roots than that, however, and it’s no surprise their label suggests you “imagine Ray Davies jamming with the Byrds.” That may be grandiose – hey, it’s label copy – but it’s not entirely wrong. They’re often mining the seam where down-home meets mild acid trip, and their show could’ve fit in just about any decade since rock-n-roll began.
Bassist and primary vocalist Timothy DeNardo, with a floppy pile of Johnnie Ray curls he allowed himself to clutch emotionally just once by my count, is the closest these guys have to a frontman. The Donkeys pass the lead vocal around between them from song to song, and drummer Sam Sprague probably has the best voice of all of them. When they play their most nakedly country-rooted tunes, DeNardo starts to look like an indie-pop Lyle Lovett.
Their set on Tuesday relied mostly on their last two records, and they resisted the urge to play “Black Cat” from their first full-length, which was fine. The songwriting on that first record sticks to your ribs, though, and while they’ve polished their mixture of influences into something shinier since the self-titled album, I kind of missed the creepiness of that first record on Tuesday. “Boot on the Seat” and “Dolphin Center” and the new, summer-anthem-y “Won’t Let You Down” are quite good songs, the latter in particular (it’s reminiscent of Spoon’s best stuff) – but none of them are as compelling as “Come On Virginia” or as unique as “Paisley Patterns,” both from the first record. In the end, it was a lightweight hour, but in the best sense of the word (think high-quality cotton, not overmatched boxer or dentist’s office).