Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Daniel Donato welcomes Amherst into the colorful world of ‘Cosmic Country’

The rising country jammer is setting the scene on fire with his undeniable talent and unique ethos
Photo courtesy of Daniel Donato’s website

Nashville-based guitarist Daniel Donato brought his Cosmic Country tour to The Drake on Thursday, Feb. 8 for a sold-out, genre bending plunge into southern psychedelia. The night marked Donato’s first show in Amherst, giving western Massachusetts an immersive introduction to the ethos of the jam frontman’s “cosmic country” – a phrase he coined as his defining sound.

The solo run comes after Donato’s sophomore album, “Reflector,” a 66-minute venture into the artist’s background in improvisational guitar with twangy roots and an auric-infused aesthetic. The 25-year-old has quickly established himself as a rising dynamo in the jam band scene after joining Bobby Weir and the Wolf Bros on stage in Memphis last February. On top of being a recurring name in several lineups this upcoming festival season, Donato is slated to open for longtime jam group moe. on their summer tour in July. This week, Donato debuted at the 20th Jam Cruise for a five-day sail overseas and played alongside some of the scene’s most impressive veterans; the yearly cruise notches a major stamp in his budding career.

With a red bandana tied around his neck, the frizzy-haired Donato stepped on stage with his three bandmates, each garbed in quintessential cowboy attire. The group delivered an extensive three-hour set comprised of fan favorites and blazing jams. Each unfolded like a classic western, blended between intergalactic epics of synthesizers and a free-flowing throttle into Donato’s innate spontaneity.

Donato and his men kicked off the show with the traipsing, love forewarning “Better Deal Blues,” fit for a proper two-step. Donato’s soft-spoken drawl, although not the luring fixture of his act, subtly complemented the band’s reeling and sometimes spicy Americana-blues flair. Much to the audience’s surprise, the group free-fell into “Reflector” standout and unabashed, chant-heavy “Hi-Country,” igniting the room’s energy in Donato’s euphoric guitar spurs and a shrilled keys solo by Nathan “Sugar Leg” Aronowitz.

The moody “Gotta Get Southbound” then stretched up and down Donato’s fretboard like a runaway freight train with dissonance and precision. As the disco ball spun overheard, the group submerged itself through a heady flow state jam, proving Donato and his mates’ tight knit chemistry in synergetic instrumental impulse. Spinning keys and hypnotically wailing chops took space to breathe before moving back into the song’s grunge-rock riff; the delivery marked a total rip-and-roar into the portal of Cosmic Country.

After honky-tonk renditions of Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here” and “Hello Trouble,” blue light cast over the stage – an ocean abyss personified – while sinking guitar improvisations reverberated alongside coiling synthesizers. A surf rock saga unfurled amidst exciting western tones, steadily highlighting the magic of their cohesion and ability to build drama throughout a jam, which is an impressive feat among the genre’s current scene.

Photo by Caitlin Reardon

Donato’s playing is a unique wonder to witness. He’s undeniably skilled technically, but what’s more exhilarating is his wizardry in switching styles to shape a song. Whether it’s metallic overtones for a starry space groove or the plucky trills of bluegrass and roots, Donato can infuse his licks with subtle but distinctive differences in style to fit every mold. His sound is spurring and hard to pin down as he blends a multitude of influences from not only country, but the blues, folk, rockabilly, funk and more.

After a quick break, the countrymen blazed through a horse-powered jam joyride of a second set by way of a 20-minute “Luck of the Draw” spur. Although whirling in its pace, Donato set an ambient tone as he trailed right under tempo – a teasing but calculated approach to a head-spinning traverse. He carried the barn burning heat right on through to Willie Nelson’s “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag,” a tasteful cover choice chock full of gritty outlaw instrumentation. The performance was fiery in its execution and drew a dancing audience, many of which decked in their respective jam merch and tie dye.

Donato slipped effortlessly into “Chore” with an almost steel pedal-timbred curling guitar over an easeful piano and percussion. The band valley-dipped into a mellow air, coy in hints of concentrated hard rock improvisation. Donato, again lagging just behind, isn’t afraid to assert an in-the-moment drift of consciousness. His solo focus is apparent, although he certainly sources sonic inspiration from his crowd. Bassist Will McGee turned the jam on its head in a spinning psychedelic groove, spiraling up in intensity until they hit a colorful burst of squelching sound. At this point, Donato’s guitar wailed basically humanlike in continuous progressions upwards before the group returned to unrushed vocals to cap the song.

A major highlight of the night was when Aronowitz took the reins with “Sugar Shack” on vocals and guitar. With an even higher voice than Donato’s, Aronowitz and his crying falsetto moved the audience into saturated ‘70s funk. The keys player’s guitar solo dripped in sensuality and ripped heavily up the fretboard before Donato stepped in for a complementing ad-lib, trying his country-leaning hand at the funkified jam.

The band encored with the reflective and a-capella “Tumbling Tumbleweed,” a true country tale sung by all four members. “Dance In The Desert,” from Donato’s latest record, marked the closing to their kaleidoscopic performance. Playful, made-for-dancing instrumentation glittered in all colors of the rainbow under Donato’s reassuring, self-embracing lyrics:

“Dance in the desert, forget the weather / Ain’t nothin’ better than being you / Used to think you’d never lose yourself forever / Ain’t nothin’ better than dancing the desert away / We’re dancing away.”

The song, a celebration of Cosmic Country and its very alive and beating heart, captured the crux of Donato’s musical and spiritual essence. 2024 is set to be a fruitful year for Donato’s career and growing fanbase. It’s clear Donato, while paying respects to country and jam pioneers alike, is a trailblazer in his niche. His impressive sound and style are well fleshed out and cemented between southern influences and spiritual esotericism. Tangibly blended, irresistibly twangy and boldly authentic – Cosmic Country is an infectious state of mind. Just come as you are, and the music will handle the rest.

Caitlin Reardon can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on X @caitlinjreardon.

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