David Dondero’s Opening Act

As "The Transient," the folksinger turned his grief into material. But for his second act, can he go farther?

Last February, Dave Dondero performed as an opening act for Rilo Kiley, the highly touted band on indie-folk label Saddle Creek. That evening’s Noise Pop audience at San Francisco’s Swedish American Hall was decidedly hip — mopheads and sideburns, trucker hats and self-knit scarves. As Dondero raised the mic to reach his six-foot-one frame, he looked distinctly out of place. With his neatly combed hair, corduroy pants, and tucked-in button-down shirt, he looked as if he might rush a fraternity — and a dry one at that. The crowd of about a hundred paid him scant attention and continued to talk, just as they had during the act that preceded him.

“I’ve-ah,” Dondero began, hesitating as if he were sorry to interrupt the crowd. “I’ve-ah got a song for you about Joseph P. Strauss. … For those of you who don’t know, Joseph P. Strauss was the chief engineer who designed the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Then Dondero flat-picked a repetitive triplet — ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da, ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da — until the audience offered its silence. It was the first time he had played the song in the city, and he was feeling a bit nervous. The moments ticked by as an uneasy, almost hostile, tension built. When would this guy start singing? How long could he hold the crowd hostage with the same riff? But his trick managed to get their attention.

Finally, the words spewed out in the quick cadence of a spoken-word poet.

We walked across the Golden Gate Bridge

I swear I didn’t do what I did

I didn’t watch her fall, I didn’t care at all

I just walked across the Golden Gate Bridge

(Ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da,

Ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da)

I know that there were no witnesses

The fog had just begun to creep in

It wrapped around my mind, it wrapped around the moment

I know that there were no witnesses

She was something in her prime

Then she took to tweakin’ ‘n’ lyin’

We used to dance and sing, now we don’t do a thing

Yeah, but she was somethin’ in her prime

(Ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da,

Ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da)

That bridge is a modern miracle

Thousands of tons hung from a cable

But water’s like concrete if you hit it at that speed

If she lived it’d be a modern miracle

‘Twas when I heard the fog horn blow

An ocean freighter crept down below

But I could hardly see, the icy wind was dice-in’ me

I opened up my hand and I let my pistol go into the fog below

(Ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da

Ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da)

Then Dondero took what seemed like his first extended breath and said, “Foreshadow.”

For the next eight minutes, he continued with the same riff while spinning out a hardboiled noir yarn by the name of “Double Murder Ballad Suicide.” While the sparseness of his guitar playing and the slightly unhinged quality of his singing are what first attracted the crowd, his considerable skills as a storyteller commanded their attention after that. What would he say next? Where would the story go? And why was Dirty Harry Callahan assigned to the case?

He finished the song with:

So I took a bus out to the Golden Gate Bridge

The bridge was packed full of tourists and kids

I said, ‘Kid, wanna see a trick?

Somethin’ twisted and sick?’

And I jumped right off the Golden Gate Bridge

After that, the crowd was his.

Opening Act Wins in the Stretch

A few weeks ago, Dondero was at Albany’s Golden Gate Fields, looking to make a bet. He’d been on the road for nearly a year since the Noise Pop performance and had also recorded an album in Austin. Recently, he’d moved into a room in San Francisco’s Mission District and returned to bartending.

He’d been out drinking the night before, so his face was still soft, cheeks still red, and voice still hoarse. He wore a winter coat and a red stocking cap that fell off his head to one side. Since he didn’t know much about the complexities of picking the ponies — nor did he want to — Dondero glanced down at his racing program, said Fuck it, then employed the pikers’ strategy: He picked the best name.

Weepinball, Haint-It-Hot, Conned Again, and Military Singer failed to catch his eye. But the number six horse, Opening Act, spoke to him. Heading to the betting window, he said, “I have to go with Opening Act.”

The 35-year-old singer-songwriter picks his horses like he writes his songs: simply, and without thinking too much. Even though he’s a folksinger, he bah-humbugs the bleeding-heart compulsions that seem to inspire most folk music. “I can’t think of anything worse than watching a guy get up there with his guitar who just wants to spew his guts out,” he said after placing the bet. “It’s painful for everybody.”

Dondero styles himself as an anti-folksinger, a writer who turns genre clichés on their heads while carefully avoiding all-out parody. It’s a tightrope walk. Lean too far one way and you’re a goofball with a guitar, à la Jack Black. Too much to the other side, and you’re just another earnest liberal with a microphone.

In one of his first folk songs, “Train Hop Flop,” Dondero tells the story of a certain budding folksinger who is so weighed down by his creative influences that he fails to put his best foot forward:

Thought I’d be that cool guy hoppin’ trains in the night

After reading Bound for Glory packed my backpack up tight

I didn’t realize it’s not the ’30s anymore

And this Depression era is maybe just ’cause we’re bored

And I didn’t know just what train to catch so I stood there for hours, no less

And the trains that came were goin’ too fast

Tried to grab on but they blazed right past

I was left on the tracks holdin’ my pack

As the rains just soaked right into my back

Dondero writes folk songs that speak to people who don’t think they like folk songs. He generally tells short stories and is acutely aware of an audience’s patience threshold. Before he introduced “Going out East” on his Live at the Hemlock CD, he told the audience, “This next song is long and boring. … If it were me, I’d leave during the first verse.” Indeed, the song indulgently rambled. But it had been requested, so he obliged the fan.

Just as much of his appeal comes from the way he sings. He uses his voice, an unpolished waver at times reminiscent of Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club or Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes, to convey deeper moods, such as heartbreak smoothed over with a kid’s wit. For instance:

If you break my heart

You pay for it

You break my heart

You bought it

“He can put so much feeling into the simplest words,” said Conor Oberst, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter who records under the name Bright Eyes. “He has an Everyman style in plain language.”

Oberst is one of Dondero’s most recognized fans. The young recording artist is shaping up as perhaps the preeminent indie-folk musician of his own generation. In the small world of indie-folk, the label he records for, Saddle Creek, is the most revered. Oberst recalled when he was fourteen years old and he saw a younger Dondero sing in an Omaha club with his then-band, Sunbrain. “His voice struck me,” Oberst said. “It was awkward, but it made the most of its imperfections. When I saw him sing it was as if, for me, it was okay to have a weird-sounding voice.”

The influence was strong. Oberst’s own vocal style is comparable to that of Dondero, if somewhat more melodramatic — textured and punctuated with sudden stops and starts. But as Oberst’s fame continues to grow (Bright Eyes debuted two songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles chart last year at 1 and 2), it’s Dondero who is more often compared to Oberst.

“Every now and then you run into a kid who says, ‘You sound like Bright Eyes,'” Dondero said at the racetrack from beneath his cap. “But it’s like, ‘Kid, do the research … it’s the other way around.'”

After one of Sunbrain’s gigs, Oberst introduced himself to Dondero and the two forged a friendship and creative partnership. Oberst sang back-ups on Dondero’s last studio album and Dondero appeared on Oberst’s Desaparecidos project.

When Oberst started his own label, Team Love, in 2004, Dondero was the third act he signed. This April, as part of a novel marketing strategy, Team Love will release Dondero’s new album online for free. According to Oberst, Team Love and Dondero will evenly split profits from record sales and touring. Distribution will be handled by Saddle Creek, putting Dondero’s music in more stores than ever. The opening act is now part of the team.

“I’m just glad to give him a home,” Oberst said. “He’d bounced around too many labels.”

Meanwhile, back at the track, Dondero had picked a winner for the second race that afternoon. Opening Act stormed down the stretch and won by two lengths.

“Time for a cold frosty malt beverage?” he asked.

The Pity Party

Dondero was born in Duluth, Minnesota. He was adopted at birth; his parents divorced when he was six. Then it was a hopscotch of new hometowns: Allamuchy, Caldwell, and Denville in New Jersey; Fort Mill and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina; Naperville, Illinois; Pensacola, Florida; Anchorage, Alaska; and a handful of others. Eventually, Dondero enrolled at Clemson University and joined Sunbrain as their singer.

At Clemson, he met his first true love, Lisa Dawn Scott. But in November 1994, after a year together, Scott died in a house fire. Dondero believes his girlfriend set the blaze to end the agony of her chronic health problems.

“To say David was devastated by her death is to put it mildly,” recalled former Sunbrain guitarist Russ Hallauer. “That was his first serious relationship. To lose her in such a horrific way … it crushed him.” Until to that point, Hallauer recalled, Dondero’s vocal style had been to scream everything in the style of a classic punk singer. But two months after Scott’s death, Dondero showed up to a studio session drunk and ready to play his first acoustic tune, titled “Recover,” as in How can I recover? Hallauer said he had to convince Dondero to let him record the ballad that night. “For David, that was the turning point,” he said. “That’s when he forged that sound he has today.”

Dondero found the range in his voice; he could emote from one stanza to the next, then from line to line, and eventually, from word to word. Another way to describe Dondero’s vocal style is that of a slightly-crazy kid, but crazy in a good way, breathless from exuberance with the smallest of discoveries, which makes him prone to string together clauses describing all the perfect details of a situation — and maybe even a few less-than-perfect ones — which makes him endearing to those who can hear it, but perhaps just a little bit crazy to those who can’t.

For the next Sunbrain album, Dondero penned six songs about his girlfriend’s death and titled it Good Side — as in the place where she had gone. The band toured the Eastern seaboard and made it as far west as Nebraska, where Oberst first saw Dondero perform, but it broke up shortly after the tour.

Hallauer had taught Dondero his first guitar chords, and recalled that his student instinctively flat-picked like a country player — a no-nonsense style that serves as simple accompaniment to his storytelling. Dondero also started listening to punk-folk music, like Simon Joyner’s confessional album Room Temperature. He took a job at a bar and hosted a folk night, observing the subtle cues that drew an audience’s attention to a performer.

Dondero began writing in a tone that simultaneously embraced and mocked self-pity. His first solo album in 1999 was titled The Pity Party. Even when he wrote about his parents’ divorce, instead of focusing on the wounds that befell him from its impact, as many of today’s songwriters might do, Dondero penned an empathetic portrait of his parents. In live performances, “Analysis of a 1970s Divorce” from 2000’s Shooting at the Sun with a Water Gun turns out to be the marked difference between frank storytelling and mere gut-spewing:

Well, maybe they were victims of what was expected of them

It was just before the dawning of the new sex revolution

And maybe they thought marriage was the proper thing to do

And in reality they probably just wanted to screw

Oh, the things you do when you want to screw

The stupid things that you do

The Transient

Dondero was sitting at a small table inside a Tenderloin bar. The prostitute at the bar was trying to catch his attention. She slowly raised her skirt up her thigh, biting on her fingernail. She was young, blonde, and oozed the kind of trouble that often makes an appearance in one of his songs.

But then the only reason she was here was because Dondero had met her in Austin a few weeks ago while recording and had fallen for her wild ways. Since she was distracting him from his recording session there, he bought her a one-way bus ticket to California and told her he’d meet her there, which happened to be here, now, in this bar, on a rainy night in the Tenderloin.

She plucked matches one by one from a matchbook and dropped them into a candle holder. Just as she looked to see if Dondero was watching her, he looked away.

So she sauntered over to the female DJ in the corner and nuzzled into her side, and then looked back one more time to see if, yes, Dondero had noticed her. He had.

He smiled, wiggled his fingers Hello.

She turned away.

After a while, Dondero lost track of her. She put her matches down and melted into the crowd. He decided to take a lap around the bar to see if she was still there. “She’s a fragile soul,” he said, playing with his fourth glass of Old Overholt, a rye whiskey that a bartender later noted is usually only ordered by people over the age of sixty. He got up and took a walk.

Eventually, Dondero returned and took a swig of whiskey. The blonde was nowhere to be found, but he had other things on his mind.

Dondero paid tribute to his troubadour lifestyle and the decade he’d spent criss-crossing the country alone in a beat-up Nissan truck in his 2003 release The Transient. Doped-up on Kerouac and Guthrie, and still grieving Scott’s death, he created the Transient as his narrator. By then, he’d also honed his tightrope style, flipping dark lyrics into upbeat tracks and vice versa. The first track, “Living and the Dead,” is a fast-paced if depressing toe-tapper:

I play the skinny indie white-boy blues

In scuffed-up military-style shoes

I’m a convenience store connoisseur

On a broken shoestring budget tour …

And you know, we’ve done some shows

And not a single person goes

Driven fourteen hours just to play it to the sound guy

He’s reading his book, we’ve got to suck it up and try

As the bartender’s playin’ on that Megatouch machine

Hear her long fingernails a-tappin’ on that screen …

Hey, I’m in love with the living and the dead

Living and the dead, in love with the living and the dead

Living and the dead, in love with a lover who’s dead

The Transient barrels through dive bars and no-luck casinos, and knows women only until the next morning. Only happy when I go, Dondero sings on the title track. Still, as fast and far as he can run, the Transient can’t outrun Scott’s death. From “Dance of Spring”:


Layin’ in the ground


Only one I found


Come take her place

Miss her

Make it erase

So Dondero isn’t above memorializing his own grief. But elsewhere, he puts a smiley face on it. On “Ashes on the Highway,” a high-tempo tune made for road trips, the Transient gamely asks his lover, when the time comes, to please chuck his remains out a car window:

Let the traffic spread the ashes

In the ditches and the overpasses …

Turn the radio up

Throw my ashes out the window

Don’t stop, don’t worry, honey

Just let it go

Out the window

When the song “Less Than the Air” arrives near the album’s end, Dondero takes an ode to suicide and turns it into a walk on the beach. He never breaks a smile as he lashes out at those who’ve taken the easy way out, and yet he mocks their self-obsession:

Train’s a-comin’, gonna lay on the track

Happy right here layin’ on my back

Let the train wheel come take my life

Let the big steel make it alright

… Feelin’ smothered by the deep blue sky?

Does the sunset hurt your eye?

Well, you’re not the only one who got caught in the rain

This whole world don’t revolve around your pain

You can go on now, spin out in misery

I’ll take the sun and the sea

The Transient bottomed out in Australia last fall on his first tour outside the United States. Instead of playing college towns and big cities where he might at least be greeted by a handful of fans reciting lyrics, he walked onto stages so large and bright he couldn’t even see the microphone. He was the opening act.

After he finished a song, he heard polite claps in the dark. One night it got so bad, he said, “It felt like I’d walked into a freezer.” Not surprisingly, he came down with pneumonia. So when he got back to the States, he started thinking about sticking in one place — maybe the Bay Area, maybe not — and making a living as a truck driver. He quit smoking — had to, on account of what his lungs hacked up. And he started thinking it was time to take care of himself, get his health up, get off the road, cash in now. He’d been in the game a long time, and fuck it, when was he ever going to meet with enough success that he didn’t have to serve drinks when he’s not on the road?

So he killed the Transient. That dude was history. Dondero had written a bunch of new songs for his new album and titled it Highway Death Shrine. “A fitting ending,” he said.

Live at the Hemlock

There’s nothing particularly new about subverting the conventions of folk singing in the service of a career as a folksinger — performers from Woody Guthrie to Tom Lehrer to Bob Dylan to Billy Bragg have been doing it for years. But the specific if informal musical genre known as antifolk is believed to have begun in 1984 at New York City’s Sidewalk Cafe. According to AntifolkOnline.com, a Web site created by musicians in London, performers “celebrate ideas and wit over technical ability in a sort of self-effacing punk/folk hybrid. At an antifolk gig, misfit musicians, tone-deaf vocalists and three-chord antiguitarists can ply their trade without fear of being ridiculed by an audience weaned on warbling prima donnas or self-indulgent egomaniacs.”

Still, if a subgenre is only a response to the pretensions of others, the others are obviously still on top. Currently, the movement seen as the future of folk music is the one known as “Freak Folk.” Last month, The New York Times described the nascent movement led by San Francisco’s Devendra Banhart and former San Franciscan Joanna Newsom as a “highly idealistic pack of young musicians whose music is quiet, soothing, and childlike, their lyrics fantastic, surreal, and free of the slightest trace of irony.” Dondero, with his focus on the gritty niceties of real life, could hardly be more dissimilar.

Regardless, Dondero’s brand of folk music is not without its fans. One critic on the Web site PitchforkMedia.com enthused through clenched teeth that Dondero “stands a good chance of being canonized by the white-blues scholar bots of the next fiscal millennium, though he’s currently just one of the genre’s migrant laborers, helping to polish the statues of several of his agitated ancestors and impatient contemporaries (Townes Van Zandt, Gordon Gano, and Simon Joyner, for starters).”

Since putting the Transient to rest, Dondero has begun stretching his style to include narratives that occur outside a barroom or the darkness of his heart. Around the same time he performed “Double Ballad Murder Suicide” at the Swedish American Hall (he called it his first attempt at straight fiction), he also penned “Pre-Invasion Jitters” — a downright antiwar song, the kind a bleeding-heart folkie might perform.

On his 2004 release Live at the Hemlock, Dondero apologized to his audience for “taking a time-out to get political,” but later reasoned, “Hey, it’s the way I feel.”

The song began as a stirring Dondero yarn:

Joined the Army for money for college

Now I’m tradin’ bullets for knowledge

Isn’t quite what I bargained for

They didn’t tell there’d be no war …

I got those preinvasion jitters

Ain’t no traitor, ain’t no quitter

Can’t get into the helicopter

This ain’t like PlayStation at all …

We could never stop the terror

By adding fuel to its fire

In this violent power struggle

I just want to love and snuggle

But midway through, he fell into the folk trap he usually avoids. He pointed fingers. He used proper nouns. He called out the president by name.

Could you define a terrorist?

Gimme the pen, I’m gonna make my list

George Bush Sr., George Bush Jr.

Ronald Reagan and the corporate donors

CIA and the FBI, NRA and that Heston guy

…Well, what’s the solution to the problem?

Gimme the answers, ’cause I ain’t got ’em

Israel and Palestine, who are we to pick a side?

We are not the world’s police

Dropping bombs don’t keep the peace

Shooting guns on foreign soil

In this bloody quest for oil

On the live album, the San Francisco crowd roared its approval. The song also won over Bob Boilen, the host of NPR’s All Songs Considered, when Dondero performed it before the November election. Boilen enthused that Dondero was “one of the best singer-songwriters I’ve ever heard.”

But Dondero probably lost his red-state listeners with the song, which forgot some of what usually makes his songs so special.

Journal-Burning Party

After leaving the bar, Dondero headed home in the rain to his 23rd Street apartment, walked upstairs, and cracked a Budweiser tallboy. He went into his small room, reached over the bed to his black leather bag, and carefully (his roommates were asleep) pulled out the master copy of Highway Death Shrine, which Oberst’s new label paid for him to record.

Dondero put the CD in a small boombox and sat on the floor cross-legged with his tower of beer in front of him. He hit play and cocked an ear toward the speakers.

The first song, “South of the South,” amounted to a love letter to the state of Florida. The tune was long and touched on everything from old lovers to hurricanes. Dondero said some of his friends had gone silent when he played his new stuff for them. “That’s a sign they don’t like it, but they don’t want to tell me they don’t like it,” he said.

In the middle of the new CD, a song called “Journal-Burning Party” eventually works itself from a slow flat-pick riff into a keyboard-pounding dance number — a peppy alt.country tune that is no longer folk. In more ways than one, the song was, like a lot of the album, about Dondero breaking from the scripts of his past:

March 28, 1993

Those words don’t mean nothing to me

November 24, 1994

I don’t want to read it no more

The 1994 entry marked Scott’s death, Dondero said. While he was in Australia, and the pneumonia had him down, all he could do was think that maybe the sickness was a purging of all that stuff — that finally it was all over. He could host a journal-burning party for everyone, we’d all go down to the pit, toss ’em in, and just move on.

Dondero squeezed his beer can and nodded. The only times he ever plays his own music for himself is just to reassure himself that he has made something beautiful, that it’s all worthwhile.

Long past midnight, he was soused, the effects of several Old Overholts, a martini or two, and a couple of Budweiser tallboys having run their course. The new CD was on its second go-round. “I hate it when I get this drunk,” he said, rolling his head.

The rain hit the apartment windows in waves. His song “Close to the Vine” came on and he began thinking about the blonde again, because she was on his mind when he wrote it. He took her to a bus station, told her he’d meet up with her in San Francisco, and somewhere during the drive the lines just started coming out.

So he didn’t like how she made her money, but still, they had a good time. And he had his shit, too. He wasn’t innocent. So he realized, who the hell was he to judge her?

Always picking up the one that fell from the vine

But maybe I’m the one who fell from the vine

Her and I, the same kind

He pulled his cell phone from his coat pocket, flipped it open, and scrolled down to her name to call her.

She didn’t answer.

Face Down Dave

Back at the horse track, before the fifth race, he said, “You can’t date a prostitute. I mean, you can — and I have — but you can’t. Just doesn’t work, you know?”

She doesn’t walk the streets, he made clear. She works in an upscale massage parlor where happy endings are expected, but no more. She had to work today, in fact. She is kind, he said. And fun in a knock-your-socks-off kind of way.

“Still,” he said. “It is what it is.”

Dondero was having a good day at the track. His pick-the-best-name strategy had already landed him two winners. He was enjoying his time home, he said. He didn’t have a gig lined up for weeks and he needed the rest. Still, he added, any day now, like clockwork, he’d get the itch to get on the road again. When April came around, Team Love would send him out, perhaps with another folksinger. And who knows how all that would all turn out? Maybe the tour would light it up, and trucker school would have to wait.

In the fifth race, the names of three horses all but reached out from the racing guide and kissed Dondero: Face Down Dave, Fame and Fortune, and Blizzard of Oz. By the time all bets had been placed, Face Down Dave was the favorite, with the other two horses placing respectable odds.

Dondero bought a $5 trifecta ticket. “I made more than I expected last night,” he said. “I can afford it.”

While the horses squeezed into the gates, a female bettor leaning on the rail hollered, “C’mon, Dave, let’s see ya bring it today, baby.”

Next to her, Dondero, in his red stocking cap, held his betting slips out in front of him like a hand of cards, as if he were preparing to eyeball both the finish of the race and his tickets all at once.

Out of the gates, Face Down Dave and Fame and Fortune took an early lead.

The nasally inclined announcer reported, It’sFaceDownDave, FaceDownDaveontherail, FameANDFortune, Nowit’sFaceDownDavenowit’sFameANDFortune.

At the halfway point, Face Down Dave broke ahead, and Blizzard of Oz followed her.

“Dave, Dave, Dave,” the female bettor chanted. More bettors unconsciously streamed toward the rail at the finish line outside, bringing a mob’s chant with them.

Dondero held his tickets out in front of him, again checking the order.

BlizzardOFOzcomingupontheoutside, makingamove, lookinggoodinthestretch, FaceDownDaveandFameandFortuneSTILLoutfront.

“Ohhhhh,” Dondero began to say as the race shaped up the way he’d like it. “Ohhhhhhhh.”

In the final stretch, aiming directly toward him, the three horses were perfectly aligned to hit Dondero’s trifecta — Face Down Dave, Fame and Fortune, and Blizzard of Oz, finishing in that order.

Blizzard of Oz hustled up on the two leading horses, attempting to wedge herself between Face Down Dave and Fame and Fortune.

“Hold ’em, Dave,” the woman shouted. “Hold ’em.”

Dondero bounced a little: “Ahhhhhhh.”

The three horses blew past the finish line in a blur of dark meat and white numbers. The crowd on the rail erupted.

“I think I got it,” Dondero screamed as he held out the trifecta ticket with one hand. “I think I got it.”

He looked at the winner’s board.

Andit’saphotofinish, the announcer whined.

Dondero put one hand on his head like a man who’d just been punched. “I got it, I got it, I got it. I think. I got it. I got it?”

The math was done out loud, and the math came back that the $5 ticket he held was worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,250 as long as the horses came in the exact order he’d picked them. There was giddy talk about lobster dinners and rent paid for months at a time and then questions about why $20 didn’t get put down on the trifecta.

“C’mon, honey,” Dondero said. “C’mon.”

Pleaseholdallticketsandbepatient, the announcer said.

Alas, the crowd soon groaned.

Blizzard of Oz was first by a nose.

Face Down Dave finished second.

Fame and Fortune trailed.

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