Most musicians resent categorization, hate being compared to other musicians. Critics, on the other hand, rely on comparison to give consumers some idea of the band's sound -- oh, dude, it's like if Deborah Harry fronted the Beatles (or whatever). The musicians are right, really -- it's pretty much an exercise in ridiculousness. And with Donkey, that ridiculousness reaches new heights.
Frank Sinatra meets the Clash. Harry Connick, Jr., meets Fishbone. Slang meets F.O.C. "We started by playing clubs up here in Atlanta," says Donkey singer T.B. "Todd" Ferster. "About two years ago we were opening for King Missile, so there were a lot of young kids there, just looking at us. So we go out there, and the kids were like, their jaws dropped. It was like you could actually see a little question mark over their heads. But it's kind of a blessing to not have a niche. We just want people to come out and have a good time. It's not our thing to blow fog around the stage."
Blowing fog is better left to cheesy metal bands and, of course, the critics. Donkey's thing is dynamic, horn-driven rockstuff. But that hasn't stopped the media from lumping them into something called the Neo Lounge Act Movement and describing their sound variously as "cocktail rock" and "cocktail jazz." They have horns and they wear nice suits and Todd Ferster comfortably fits the term "crooner." They swing. And critics can't resist pigeonholing them.
While Donkey's music is seamless, the sextet itself is a diverse hodgepodge that's evolved over the past five years. Ferster, from New Jersey, hooked up first with bassist Frank Brown. They were soon joined by guitarist Teddy Murray, who had played with the Coolies. Paul Barrie came in on drums, and the horn section -- Mike Jones on alto sax and Scott Davis on trombone -- completed the lineup.
Then came the live shows. Two of those are especially notable. The first: at a club catering to the over-50 set, one member of the grayish audience reportedly approached the band afterward and complimented their selection of "great old songs I haven't heard in years." A neat trick, considering Donkey had played nothing but their own current originals. The second: a concert at the Point in August of 1993 was recorded by engineer Don McCollister and released recently as Slick Night Out. "That's what we wanted," Ferster says, "to record a record. We had nothing out for a long time. We played a lot of shows, the labels, big and small, came to look at us, we did the music conventions like South-by-Southwest and all that. People were saying they loved it, but they had no idea what to do with it."
Fortunately for Donkey and music lovers everywhere, Harvey Schwartz had formed the Atlanta independent label Steam Records. "Steam and our management," Ferster explains, "came up with the idea of doing a live record. We had no budget to do a studio album, so we went in and did it live. Having no record and nothing on the radio is a good way to kill a band quick." Both problems were solved by Slick Night Out, which has received heavy airplay in Georgia.
Now Donkey is touring and planning to begin a follow-up, a studio album. "Everybody is ready for recording more stuff," Ferster says. "We do want to get on the road, but that's been a problem with a six-piece with some members who have kids and stuff. Finally things are opening up a bit."
The thirteen-song live CD is mesmerizing and often brilliant, but some Atlanta insiders gush that even it doesn't do justice to Donkey in the flesh. Ferster is said to be quite the sex symbol, doing for whatever genre it is you lump them in what the Hood (now a South Beach promoter/doorman) did for dance music in the Eighties -- dressing it up in wingtip shoes, stylish suits, an overriding air of suavity. One critic wrote that Donkey's members look like the cast of The Godfather, another pundit described their look as GoodFellas. They collect old Lincolns and Cadillacs (that don't necessarily run). They'll light your cigarette with a Zippo.
But they aren't all style -- the music holds a bounty of substance. "Some people thought this was a manufactured gimmick," admits Ferster. "Sure, that's gonna happen, it's par for the course. You have to be like a duck and let it run off your back. This gimmick, that gimmick -- we're trying to write some good music and have a good time with it, have a good time in this business, enjoy what we're doing. We all like to write and play and sing and mess around. We horse around pretty good on a stage." He doesn't seem to notice the pun he's made in that last sentence.
And he doesn't seem to mind all the comparisons as much as he should. "I take that as all very nice. If I took any style -- and I listen to the Chairman all the time -- it'd be Sammy Davis, Jr., because he could do it all. Marty Robbins, too, a lot of country influence. That's a new thing for me, being from Jersey. In Georgia you can't help it. Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson are big influences as far as writing."
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The songs the Donkeys write are given full life by extremely crafty and virtuosic playing. "Yeah," Ferster says, "I play a little acoustic guitar, but these guys really got it together. I'm proud to play with them, they're truly musical hierarchy."
And in the song "Phantasmo del Gato" they sound exactly like the Paladins meet Tom Waits.
Donkey performs at 10:00 p.m. Friday at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Tickets cost $5.
"People were saying they loved it, but they had no idea what to do with it.