David Dondero's name rarely gets spoken without mention of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst. Both artists are singer/songwriters with a penchant for old-timey, strummed instruments and a knack for lyrics that weave poignant tales with telling details and imagery that often skews toward the surreal. Their plaintive vocal delivery is similar as well.
Oberst, who has cited Dondero as an influence, signed him to his Team Love imprint, which put out Dondero's albums South of the South (2005) and his new one, Simple Love. Although Oberst has the larger fan base and enjoys greater critical acclaim, Dondero's music, which I got hip to in the early '00s thanks to WMNF, has always resonated with me in a more meaningful way than Bright Eyes'.
Seeing Dondero perform Saturday at New World Brewery in Ybor City cemented my appreciation for the dude as both a musician and all-around nice, down-to-earth guy.
He writes everyman songs about heartbreak and hangovers and empty pockets. Listening to Dondero deliver lyrics about being down and out, his voice quivering with emotion, you can't help but feel the 38-year-old draws his inspiration from life — his life.
During the four hours that led up to Dondero's performance (more on that later) he chatted with many of the patrons. The conversations I had with him found us discussing stuff like credit-card problems, bad debt and when it's time to file for bankruptcy.
Turns out Dondero, despite being a lauded tunesmith who has been recording for venerable indie labels for the past decade, still makes the kind of money earned by alt-weekly journalists, school teachers and restaurant servers — basically, the same kind of people who attended his show Saturday.
"I don't have anything that's worth anything," Dondero admitted. "I own one guitar. That's it."
Whereas his studio work benefits from spot-on trumpet or banjo, Dondero performed with just his voice and an acoustic guitar on Saturday. And while he's no virtuoso ax man, his use of reverb effects nicely augmented his Dylan-esque (think "Visions of Johanna," "Desolation Row") ballads. Speaking of Dylan, both he and Dondero were born in Duluth, Minnesota, Dondero told me before his show.
During his set, some members of the audience sat around the stage area mouthing the words. What distinguishes Dondero from other singer/songwriters is that his tunes take you somewhere — but not in a pedestrian, travelogue sense. They're stories that are moving and often fascinating, riddled with pop-culture references and feelings ranging from despair to hope.
Dondero's not a nihilist. His subject matter is often bleak, but there's always that promise of rebirth. "I know it will get better with a brand new time zone," he sings on the number "Leave the Drivin' to Them."
Unfortunately, Dondero didn't get to perform until 1:15 a.m.
By then, several people I had spoken with who'd planned to stay for his set had hit the wall and gone home. In fact, the crowd had noticeably thinned by 2 a.m., at which point Dondero was only about three-quarters through his show.
It was closing time when he finished. Employees were shooing patrons out the door during a period typically allotted for discussing the night's entertainment.
I'd love to get some feedback on this:
Is there really a need to have the headliner go on later than, say, 11 p.m.? After all, the Velvet Revolver/Alice in Chains show that took place the same night at Ford Amphitheatre ended by 11:30.