Back before Elmwood Avenue was an ebullient stretch to find double IPAs, spicy tuna rolls and soy lattes, it boasted gritty joints like Merlin’s, tall and tattered in the locale now occupied by the soon-to-be-deceased Blue Monk.
Full of leather-clad bikers, Long Island ice tea inhalers and wild cards of various predilections, the place was unpredictable — which made it a great place to launch the live performance lore of Buffalo’s Steam Donkeys.
Led by its hirsute frontman Buck Quigley, the band earned a reputation for plugging in, cranking the dial to 11 and playing wild originals and covers under the umbrella of rock, revved-up honky tonk and all points between. Beers were ordered, swigged and spilled. Dancing was expected. And amidst a crowd of Elmwood misfits, a band emblematic of Buffalo’s working-class sound and unhinged country underbelly began to grow.
Multiple albums, a few lineup changes and 25 years later, the party’s still roaring for the now venerable Donkeys, who’ll scuff up Sportsmen’s Tavern at 8 p.m. April 16 with support from Chattanooga, Tenn.’s 9th Street Stompers. Leading up to the show, bandleader Quigley took some time to discuss the term "alt country," his band’s longevity, and why an Uncle Tupelo reunion should happen with a handshake.
Question: The Steam Donkeys could be termed as alt country, Americana or just a barroom-ready amalgamation of guitar-geared rock. How do you guys classify the band?
Answer: Oh, we’ve been called all those things and worse, I suppose. If any of those terms pique your interest, then you should come see the band. We’re a Buffalo-based musical act and global think tank.
Q: With today's expanded crop of alt-country acts, how relevant is the genre term anymore? Has it just become a way to say "there's twang involved, but it’s not cookie-cutter new country"?
A: That’s about all the term ever attempted to describe, really. The Steam Donkeys started playing before alt country was coined, and yet we found ourselves being identified as such once the term caught on. They used to call it “cowpunk” when we started out. We called an album “Cosmic Americana” before Americana became a musical genre. It’s just a part of packaging and selling music. You have to call it something or music journalists can’t do their jobs.
I’d like to quote our fiddle player Doug Moody, who, when asked to describe the alt-country scene by an interviewer down south had this to say: “There is no alt-country scene. It’s just a bunch of losers hanging out with other losers because nobody else will be their friends.” Pretty funny and accurate, at least at the time.
Q: The band's now in its 25th year of existence. What are some things that have kept the show going?
A: Well, being alive, for one. That’s important. Not disbanding. Other than that, it’s probably friendship, respect, things like that. It helps that we built up a big catalog of original songs early on, so we have a deep well to draw from. Now, every show is different and we improvise a lot of banter to have fun with the audience.
Q: Sportsmen's Tavern is a special venue to many local and visiting musicians. Why is it so important to Buffalo's music scene?
A: Aside from the radical changes that have been made to the layout of the place in order to showcase bigger events and more touring acts, it’s the Hall family and everyone involved there that make it such a welcoming venue to both musicians and fans of live music.
Sometimes Frank Quebral is even doing sound there at our shows — which is a treat because Frank played bass with us on the road for several years and knows us inside out.
Q: Finally, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar walk up to you at the same time. Whose hand do you shake first, and why?
A: I’d prefer to tell them both to shake one another’s hand and arrange an Uncle Tupelo reunion. Life’s too short to take yourself too seriously.
Who: Steam Donkeys, with 9th Street Stompers
When: 8 p.m. April 16
Where: Sportsmen’s Tavern, 326 Amherst St.