I first heard of David Dondero as a teen - nearly 15 years ago. At the time the record label Saddle Creek was getting an increasing amount of recognition, with bands like Cursive and perhaps most notably - Bright Eyes, reaching national audiences. Dondero plays Friday night in Springfield - info here.
Bright Eyes front-man, Conor Oberst, went on to be widely hailed by critics, some went so far as to call him "a new Bob Dylan." I was smitten like so many other emotional young folks who thought the vulnerable, expressive lyrics and wavering, vibrato-ridden vocals he presented were accessible, fresh and intriguing. During the time I was in full Saddle Creek fan-kid status, someone gave me a live record of Dondero's. "You think Bright Eyes is good? Listen to this." Comparisons have continuously been drawn between the two, Oberst has credited Dondero for influencing his style. Dondero went on to release music off a label Oberst owns.
That first Dondero album I heard, Live at the Hemlock, was my most listened to for a solid year or so. The songs were punchy, with raw content and presentation. There was nothing quite like careening down a country road singing/screaming along to them. During a song called The Living and the Dead Dondero belts out, "I play the skinny indie white boy blues in scuffed up military style shoes, I'm a convenience store connoisseur - on a broken shoe string budget tour."
Since then - it appears not all that much has changed. He's added to a now long list of records, the most recent is more toned down than some previous efforts, and was released this year. It's named for the recording studio in Austin it was produced in. "I'm proud of that album because it's all live ... at the core of the songs are bass, drums, guitar and vocals, all live," says Dondero. Some tuba, piano and other components were later added into the mix. Before the album's release, the bass player John Winsor took his own life. Dondero says the music understandably now has "a lot of sadness attached to it." While he had hoped to tour with Winsor and the drummer, Dondero is out on the road on his own again, playing only a song or two off the new record at his shows.
A life in the limelight was never what he's said to want. The fact he's garnered accolades from critics, like when NPR put him on a list of "best living singer/songwriters" - does not seem to send him. "You know, they did write that very flattering thing about me, but that can also be kind of a curse ... It makes me kind of unsettled." Dondero, while appreciative of the criticism, says being compared to artists like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan might give audiences the wrong impression.
During our conversation Dondero has a genuinely down to earth, perhaps even a little self-deprecating, demeanor - much like what I have seen in videos of live performances. He prefers playing to small crowds - ones who are there for the music, who listen. Lately he passes around a notebook for people to write song requests on. "Or if they, I don't know - want to say something - like they don't like it or whatever, that's fine too," he says with a laugh.
It would be impossible to talk about Dondero without acknowledging that, like the Springfield venue he'll play - he's a true example of DIY ethic. He never signed with a major label or handed over the rights to his image and content to a management team, despite having the aesthetic and talent to have rightly done so. He often books his own shows mid-tour; he spends most of his time traveling. He's a Minnesota native who grew up in New Jersey and Illinois and has since called Texas, Alaska and many states in between a sort of "home."
Dondero is currently in between Oregon and Virginia when not on the road. His show in Springfield on Friday will be in a house venue; the artist whose recognition has gone largely under the radar will be playing in a basement, which goes by Radon Lounge. (Message the venue for the address if you want to attend.) Dondero says he's looking forward to the show - that regardless of the size of the city he plays he never knows what the response will be, and that's part of the thrill of his roving lifestyle. Why does it still appeal to him, some 20 or so years into his career? "It's a crapshoot - it's a gamble. Sometimes you come up winning, sometimes losing. It's still interesting. That's why."