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Pat Donohue: A Force to Be Reckoned With

April 07, 1994|MIKE BOEHM

Imagine a dystopian near-future in which such huge rents have been torn in the American social fabric that even the Twin Cities are threatening to rip asunder.

Minneapolis and St. Paul would sit there, side by side at the brink, preparing to lob mortar shells back and forth across the Mississippi River at each other, just like Belfast, Bosnia and Beirut, only colder.

With bloodshed imminent, the sanest heads on both sides would enter tense, 11th-hour negotiations and arrive at the only possible way out: We'll settle this thing with a guitar-picking contest.

Minneapolis would look to its western suburb of Wayzata and, amid much gloating, bring forth a champion: Leo Kottke, the good-natured Goliath of the steel-string acoustic, a monstrous player, famous and dominant in his field since the '70s.

To preserve its liberty, property and honor, St. Paul, the underdog, would call upon a native son. Pat Donohue.

The rank-and-file Minneapolitans would laugh at this little-known upstart, just like the Philistines of old. "Who's he?" they'd cackle. "What--those losers are putting up a talk-show host against Leo the lionhearted? We'll have 'em municipally cleansed by sundown."


But if you looked at Leo, you might see him shaking.

Let's abandon our grim little fantasy and point to a more pleasant here-and-now, in which the vaunted Kottke respects the heck out of his fellow Minnesotan, and maybe even fears him just a little.

At least that's the implication of the typically dry-humored assessment Kottke wrote for the CD booklet of Donohue's current album, "Two Hand Band":

About Pat Donohue . . . I first heard him on the radio and got upset. Then I heard him in concert somewhere and got more upset. He thinks harmonically, improvises beautifully and writes. Disgusting. Enjoy this record, but if you're a guitar player, it's going to haunt you.

Listen to the album, and it becomes clear that Kottke has not overestimated Donohue's ability.

The all-instrumental collection, which could be described as jazz-influenced folk, or folk-ified jazz, features Donohue's arrangements of songs by Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and others.

The album's subtitle, "Jazz Classics & Selected Tunes for Solo Fingerpicked Guitar," is telling. If Donohue (who plays Friday at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments) did not guarantee that this was a solo guitar record, you'd swear that he was using overdubs, or an uncredited ghost accompanist.

His playing is rich with active, nimble bass lines that would in themselves seem to give a guitarist plenty to do. Laid against them are complex chord work and elaborate, deftly executed single-note runs. It's about as much harmonious sound as can be produced by two hands, wood and strings.

As a capper, on a concluding version of the Booker T. & the MG's classic "Green Onions," the 40-year-old picker somehow gets his guitar to emulate the throbbing, whirring sounds that Booker T. Jones produced with his Hammond B3 organ on the original hit.

Like Kottke, Donohue can step out of his instrumental-whiz guise and turn into a more-than-competent singer-songwriter. His 1991 album, "Life Stories," featured his pleasant singing and catchy, literate songwriting, along with guitar work that, though toned down to work within a vocal framework, was dazzling nonetheless.

So why is Donohue without a recording deal ("Life Stories" and "Two Hand Band" both appear on his custom label, Blue Sky Records) and still but a speck in the expanding market for acoustic music?

Donohue thinks that, in terms of getting radio exposure, he may be paying for his own eclecticism. The influences he cites include such long-dead country-blues musicians as Blind Blake and Robert Johnson, seminal jazz guitar figures Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, a whole roster of jazz pianists, including Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton, and, on the country side, Chet Atkins.

"It's difficult, because people don't know how to pigeonhole what I do," the easygoing Donohue said, sitting in the basement of his St. Paul home, and not minding too much that his 6-year-old daughter, Daisy, and a playmate were crashing around on the same drum set that had been Donohue's first instrument when he was a kid.

Donohue also issued two late-'80s releases on Red House Records, a tiny St. Paul folk label. "The styles on the two Red House records are very diverse, and I think it caused a lot of confusion" among acoustic-format disc jockeys. " 'Two Hand Band" is my most focused, but it's just a quarter or a third of what I do."

Donohue says that even with its unified concept of applying folk-based finger-picking to the jazz heritage, the album has had a hard time fitting into today's severely segmented radio formats (a problem that the similarly eclectic Kottke didn't have to face when he emerged more than 20 years ago).

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