Kerstin and I had the pleasure the other night of traveling the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike through this autumn’s first dreadful sogginess to hear The Donuts at the Khyber in Old City, Philadelphia.
Wearing matching black suits and pounding out a hearty bowlful of chunky, snide, infectious pop to a packed house of adoring fans were chief songsmith, singer and guitarist, the twangy, tungsten-voiced J. Bearclaw; grinning guitarist Johnny Taint, the George Harrison to Bearclaw’s singlehanded Lennon & McCartney; the immobile Peter Extravaganza on bass, wearing a Goorin Brothers bebop/fedora number and a three-day beard; and the everlovin’ Fathead, rumored to be a leading calfskin fiddler around Wheeling-way about 20 years ago, keeping time. [In the interest of full disclosure, I should be informing you that one member of The Donuts is my cousin-in-law, but I’m not, because he doesn’t wish to have his secret identity revealed.] Also along for the ride, not wearing a matching suit, was the fickle Chuck Vadge, whose keyboards and slide guitar play right into the Donuts’ strengths, adding a brash layer of texture to such songs as “Soon” and “Maya Van Rossum’s Blues.”
Onstage, J. Bearclaw is the Ted Healy to the assembled stooges – although by making such an observation, I am, of course, playing right into the same-old, same-old written by all the pop journalists around Philly – that The Donuts are an “elaborate inside joke” and that they “do not take themselves too seriously” – or as one writer has mused, “It’s hard to tell whether The Donuts are an actual, ambitious, honest-to-the-Christ rock band or just friends making dick jokes.” Well, if the other night’s set, and the CD whose release it celebrated (The Monkey Wrench Gang, named for Edward Abbey’s comic novel of eco-pranks and dedicated to Abbey himself; produced by Mike Brenner for Chapter 7 Records) are any indication, these guys are working awfully hard if it’s just for giggles.
The set was breathlessly tight, machine-packed from end to end with none of the usual milling and muttering one sees on bar stages. The new album is a little darker than their frothy penultimate release Buckley, taking not one but two harsh, timely and well-deserved swipes at oil commerce -- in “Maya Van Rossum’s Blues” and the Costellian title track -- over a grand cache of hooks and jingley-jangles (and remember, I’m an oil man).
A song on Monkey Wrench Gang about another songwriter, the recently un-cloistered Buddhist monk and former 60s icon Leonard Cohen, perhaps gives a clue about what The Donuts are about these days. When J. Bearclaw sings
Leonard’s coming down from the mountain and he’s pissed
Better run now
"I don’t remember Los Angeles like this"
Better run now . . .
Leonard’s coming down from the mountain to record
Better run now
He’s practiced at his verse and he wields a verbal sword
Better run now
he’s describing a musician as a fearsome creature. (I guess if I had to name a top 10 of fearsome singer-songwriters, Leonard Cohen would in fact be on the list.) If The Donuts have a credo, it may be that "Even goofball power pop can sting you every now and then." Or, perhaps, "Fear the Awesome Pop-Gods That We Are!" -- I can't be sure which.
Find out more on The Donuts' website, and buy The Monkey Wrench Gang at a.k.a. Music, 27 N. 2nd Street, Old City, Philly.