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Published: 2004/02/28
by Walter Ligon

Under the Full Moon in Key West with Donna The Buffalo

Editor’s note: We do not to run material that has appeared elsewhere. However for some reason in this case a multiple submission slipped under our noses when our friend (and former contributor) Aaron Kayce emailed us to explain that this piece originally ran at JamBase. This is certainly true as this article appears there, edited differently with an additional image or two. However rather than take this piece off the site since it has been up there for a few days we would rather leave it up and encourage everyone not to submit multiple submissions of such pieces. It will make everyone’s lives easier and we pledge this is the last time we let it slide…

It is pretty much common knowledge throughout America that the American Buffalo of the West is making a comeback from having once been a species endangered by the greed and excesses of the white man. Once again the buffalo roam free in the country, thanks to the love of modern man. What is not so commonly known is that there is a different kind of Buffalo sweeping the Eastern United States, this one out of upstate New York: a band, a unique band named Donna the Buffalo. This band plays songs of love to encourage us all to roam free alongside the buffalo, as members of the herd. The band recently played in Key West, so I came too, to spend 5 days and 4 nights with them and people from all over the country. I came to find out for myself what this phenomenon is all about and to see how my experiences of nearly 4 decades ago would compare to the here and now.

I first experienced Donna the Buffalo in September, 2003 at the HarvestFest in LaFayette, Georgia. I had not been to a music festival in nearly 35 years, and I had been missing that part of life, because I love all sorts of music. My daughter Dottie and her husband Chris had invited me to go to the festival with them and their friends, and I had eagerly taken them up on the offer, with visions of Woodstock in my head. Well, it wasn’t Woodstock, but it wasn’t all that far off, either.

We had gone to HarvestFest to hear the likes of John Prine, Moe, Yonder Mountain String Band, the Radiators, and many others, and to spend three days camping in a wonderful meadow lined with pine woods. The weekend turned out to be one of the absolute best in my life! Donna the Buffalo had also been on the "must see" list, but I must admit that the band turned out to be, for me, one of those wonderful surprises that I just could not get out of my mind or heart after the festival. So, in one of my many follow-up phone calls with her, Dottie suggested I check out the Donna the Buffalo web site. I did so, saw the advance notice for the Key West show, and immediately signed up.

And so here I was at last, among the palms and balmy breezes of Key West, a place I had never visited before, but now had the perfect reason to visit.

Evening in Key West comes very gently, very softly, and with little fanfare, despite all the craziness that goes on downtown on Front Street at nightfall. On the other side of the Key, perhaps two miles away from Front Street, nestled in a residential section, lies the beautiful and luxurious Wyndham Casa Marina Resort, originally built in 1900 by Mr. Henry M. Flagler. Flagler also built the Florida East Coast Railway and the Overseas Railroad from St. Augustine to Key West and is a rich study himself, which is why so much is named for him throughout Florida and the Keys.

Between the Resort and the ocean is a lovely grassy area, enhanced with softly lit walks, bushes, tall palm trees, a couple of large, well-lit swimming pools, a large island-style thatch hut bar, the beach boys’ hut, a local artist’s hut, and, of course, a sandy beach and wooden piers. This is the venue where Donna the Buffalo was to play for four straight evenings during the first week in January, 2004.

On a large open patch of the lawn stood an imposing musician’s stage and a small separate platform with the sound board control system perhaps 50-70 feet in front of the stage. The stage was absolutely full of equipment. To round out the setup, there were a number of digital video cameras set up at key locations to tape the show. For some reason, despite the fact that the band has been around for quite a number of years, they have yet to make a DVD and this taping raised my hopes that one will be available soon.

Each of the four evenings of the show was beautiful: warm, and a bit of ocean breeze. A full moon high in the sky over very light clouds. The band was advertised to start each evening at 7 pm, but it started after 8 each night. No one but me seemed to mind. By the third evening, I did not mind, either. Instead, I paid attention to the little things that were going on around me, things that I had not seen and felt in over 20 years.

One thing that struck me was the way the band seems to appear out of nowhere each time they come on stage. One moment the stage was empty; the next moment the 6 of them were there, instruments on, plinking and plunking, friendly, smiling, acknowledging and saying hello to a few people up close to the stage, chatting with each other as though they haven’t seen each other for some time.

Then the band sort of slides from a few tuning notes into a short series of seemingly unrelated chords, then, bing, into their first song, usually one of their well-known upbeat rhythm pieces. Just as smooth as silk, often catching all but the most dedicated fans by surprise. The artists usually play lead guitar (Jeb), fiddle, scrubboard or accordion (Tara), guitar (Jim), organ/keyboard (Kathy), bass (Bill), and drums (Tom), and vocals (Jeb, Tara, Jim). The rhythms are always clear, even when the artists get into the funkiest little riffs on their own and there are plenty of both playful, serious, and (in the word of my day) far-out excursions by each of the four lead artists.

The fans quickly catch on that the set has begun, so the area between the stage and the sound control platform quickly fills with fans, perhaps as many as 250-300 in all, moving to the beat of the music. The area will stay full for the entire 3-hour show as people sway, boogie, dance, and otherwise move their bodies in all manner of natural and unnatural ways.

The music’s energy is highly reminiscent of both the late 60s and the Grateful Dead, and most people who hear it for the first time make that connection. But it is very different: in addition to their own creations, they are as likely to play music with rock, reggae, folk, country, or zydeco energy; however, the music always has Donna the Buffalo’s unique signature sound. And although the band’s lyrics do take business and government to task for the messes they have created in the world, most of their work seems to me to be aimed at self-responsibility and self-accountability. The lyrics are often beautiful, sometimes poignant, and occasionally downright funky. They are about the soaring moments and heartbreaks of life and love. They are about how easily we can be misled in life, yet how easily we can find the right track again. And they are about how misled our business, government, and political institutions have become. Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately I heard no proposed solution to issues on these institutional levels.

The music seems to have a wave of energy riding through it that brings peace to even the most active dancers. It affects each person in a different way. As for myself, I suddenly found myself in the middle of this group of people, of whom I knew not even a handful, and I felt as though I were in a tropical paradise, being carried along gently and caringly, nurtured by these strangers.

Most of the people here went to a lot of trouble to be here: they came from states all over the country, as far away as Alaska, as well as from Florida. And staying at the Casa Marina is no small matter financially: the least expensive accommodations, when all the little fees and taxes are added up, come to a minimum outlay of $700-850, not counting the entertainment fee, meals, drinks, and other entertainment costs. In any event, the point is: the herd here consists of middle-income Americans who are dedicated enough to what they need to do and to spend what it takes to get here and to be here with each other and with Donna the Buffalo. And many of them travel on to follow the band.

The herd here for the Key West shows consisted almost entirely of white Americans (I saw 2 non-white people), mostly in their late 20s to early 50s. (I strongly suspect that, at 64, I was the oldest.) Several couples brought small children. There were a few middle-school girls, but no young boys (so symptomatic of the illnesses of our society). There were a few college age girls, and a sprinkling of men and women in their early 20s. As near as I could tell, there were no people staying here alone, other than me. There was a young boy and an older man in wheelchairs and there was a guy with one leg. And there was me.

In addition to suffering from a whopper of a head cold for the entire trip, my knees simply refused to carry me for even one full hour, much less three straight. So right from the start I got hotel permission to move a chair into the grassy area (although some overeager security guy challenged me the 3rd night). Periodically I rested myself from the "2-step program" by plopping (dive-bombing) into the chair.

Before the band began playing on the 3rd night about 8:10 I spotted an older fellow, Joe Forte, with a long, flowing white beard and wispy white hair. He was the one guy there who might have been older than me. He was selling T-shirts. On the front was the silhouette of an American Buffalo, pawing the ground, with a beautiful pale orange moon behind it. Written around it: "Donna the Buffalo Under the Full Moon in Key West, January 2004." I was anxious as the band was about to come on but I bit the bullet and ran to my room. Sure enough, just as I returned, the band appeared as usual: poof … friendly smiles, tuning, chatting, saying hello, a few seemingly unrelated chords … bing, rockin into a beautiful song.

I was able to get the shirt and Joe ended up staying for the entire evening. We had a lengthy chat, and I learned that he is the artist with the hut on the hotel grounds. He is a true artist, a painter, but he got the creative urge to make the shirts, got the band’s approval, and agreed to share the profits with them. (Good for all of them!) He is such a nice guy, so enthusiastic! He has been in Key West for 18 years and seems truly satisfied with his life here. Joe invited me to visit his hut the next day.

As the wonderful, touching music continued on, the dancing became more and more intense. I soon noticed that a young woman in a wide-brimmed hat whom I judged to be in her early 20s was dancing "with" me, even though that by no means met the normal definition of dancing with someone. We kept a distance of 2-10 feet from each other, but we were communicating, interacting, yet expressing our own individuality as we boogied. It was nice. I felt noticed for the first time in 3 evenings. Afterward, she passed by me and said, in a low voice, "I learned something: Thank you for dancing with me." To which I responded, with typical male puppy dog enthusiasm, a bit louder than I might have preferred, "Thank you for dancing with me!" OK, I sort of yelled it. She yelled back, "Thank you for dancing with me!"

And so it went, off and on, back and forth, for the rest of the evening. At one point, I called out, "Thank you for sharing that with me!" and she picked up the echo right away. Then we reduced it to "Thank you for sharing!" and "Thank you for dancing!" and peppered members of the herd with these new-found moments of glory. Sometime during the evening she gave me a tip: "Oh, just pretend your knees are marshmallows!" Marshmallows? Right. OK, I admit it; it worked for a while: every time I remembered to use it, I got an extra 5+ minutes of boogie time before having to make a controlled crash landing into my chair.

I showed up at Joe’s hut around 1 pm the next day. He saw me coming, and welcomed me from a distance. He told me, "You know, I knew the band was good, because I had heard them before, but when you were so worried that you might miss their opening, well, that really caught my attention, and you’re right, the way they open is hot! So I’m really looking forward to the concert tonight! I’m really excited! Thank you, my friend!" It was all I could do to keep from breaking down in the man’s arms. I am such a sucker for heart-felt acknowledgement.

Joe Forte showed me his paintings, many of which were really beautiful. Then I realized that hanging in his hut were T-shirts that consisted of collages of his own paintings, each of them different! We spent the next 10 minutes looking through the shirts to find a special one for me: Hemingway’s house, a sunset, a famous restaurant, famous bars, a beach scene. Later that evening he autographed it for me, a one-of-a-kind shirt selected just for me.

The 4th night was just as special as the first three. The band played some of their best tunes, and some other artists’ work, as well. But it was hard to discern among artists, because the band so skillfully wove in songs according to their energy, working with the energy of the herd. The sound was awesome, especially since I was right at the stereo point of the system. At one point Joe passed by, calling out goodbyes. There was no way I was going to let him get away with that, so I tracked him down and gave him a hug. The man choked up; he was at a loss for words. Me, too. If you are ever in Key West, be sure to visit Joe Forte at his artist’s hut. Tell him Walter the dcbuffalo sent you and said to give him my love. See what happens.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed bicycling around the town buying souvenirs, drinking beer, eating key lime pie, having lunch at the Hog’s Breath Saloon, and ogling the cruise ships, and I enjoyed parasailing at the resort. If I’d had a partner with me, I probably would have gone for a half day fishing boat trip just for the fun of it. And if I’d had my younger daughter with me I probably would have gone for the glass-bottom boat ride and a visit to the butterfly farm and Monkey Island. Key West offers much, much more to do for fun and R&R, all of it worth doing, and I hope to go there again and do some or all of it.

But there is no substitute for rejuvenation in Key West under the full moon with Donna the Buffalo and the rest of the HeRD.

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