The Donkeys make timeless rock in southern California | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Donkeys make timeless rock in southern California

A few years back, one of their songs was reworked and credited to the fictitious band Geronimo Jackson in Lost

As pop-music descriptors go, "dreamy" and its fancy cousin "dream-like" are blanket terms meant to impart a certain gravitas to sounds that are distant, blurred at the edges, or hard to pin down. But due to their overuse, the terms also imply blandness, and in the end, they convey little more than a vague, non-threatening tone.

The thing about dreams, though, is that they can be nightmares in waiting. That inherent duality is often overlooked. Coming from San Diego — a city less celebrated than San Francisco or Los Angeles, but still lauded for delivering the quintessential California experience — The Donkeys are no stranger to that sort of nuance. "[San Diego] is kind of like the [weird] step-child of L.A.," notes keyboard player Anthony Lukens. "Half the national acts that go on tour skip San Diego completely."

The concept of dreaminess figures prominently in the Donkeys experience. But The Donkeys' notion of dreaminess is of a more distinctly American variety. The shimmering harmonies conjure images of sun-baked stretches of open road. It speaks of taking to that road in search of something better, but also to the doubts that might prevent a traveler from lighting out.

Ride the Black Wave, the fourth album from the four-piece, espouses all the beauty to be found on the frontier of new experience, but also acknowledges that there is menace in so much possibility.

California fog: The Donkeys at Smiling Moose
California fog: The Donkeys

The Donkeys seem to be in constant conflict, trying to find the best way to honor the seeking spirit that the music embodies. Is the band's role to keep its roots in San Diego and be standard-bearers of the California lifestyle? Or should it hit the road in a Kerouac-ian manner, leaving fate to fortune? They are at once dreamers and dream. "Should I stay in California? / Should I move to France?" vocalist Tim DeNardo asks on the album opener, "Sunny Daze." The choice between California and some nebulous alternative is posed a few more times on the album.

"We've all thought about moving. Everybody does, I think, when they get to a certain age," says Lukens. "Everybody has that moment where you've seen people come and go. [It's that] existential thing where you're like, ‘I don't know what the hell I'm going to do with my life.'"

This indecision should come as no surprise, given the band's influences. The Donkeys' sound draws from the wanderlust-laden California canon, from the Grateful Dead to Pavement. To say that The Donkeys draw from past sounds would be an understatement, but the results are genuine and don't feel derivative in the slightest. (In fact, a few years back, a Donkeys song was reworked and credited to the fictitious band Geronimo Jackson in an episode of the TV show Lost wherein the gang traveled back in time to the 1970s.) This timelessness forms the crux of The Donkeys' appeal. In an era when quirk and irony is often a band's foot in the door, The Donkeys' earnestness puts it at odds with the pop landscape.

All of these conflicts fuel The Donkeys. And whether the members stay or go, the band holds onto its concept of the American Dream unapologetically.