When the organ grows past pleasantries and the guitars finally swell beyond sweet, Donny Hue and the Colors unveils its surrealist circus. The stage overflows with a dozen instruments spread among a half-dozen members, and the sound pours out: Clever prose spits past a neck-braced harmonica. Bass and guitar mingle with glockenspiel. A Theremin in a green jack-o-lantern swims through the air like a jellyfish. This is pop by, of and for the peculiar.
But the band on stage, Washington, D.C.'s Donny Hue and the Colors, isn't much of a band at all, at least in the traditional sense. Real bands practice three times a week. Donny Hue and the Colors is lucky if it practices three times a year. The group's main songwriter, Ed Donohue, lives 200 miles from D.C., and each of his "bandmates" devotes more time to his or her group than the Colors. Members move in and out contingent upon their schedules, not Donohue's.
True, with the Colors, Donohue relies on variability. The band is defined by flux, incorporating unfurled, druggy jangle reminiscent of Loaded-era Velvet Underground one moment before dropping everyone into vocal harmonies hanging above an organ, autoharp or homemade maraca the next. Their driving, coloring-book pop is fantastically confident and convincing whether delicate or rowdy. It's easy to appreciate, difficult to dissect. Like the lineup, Donny Hue and the Colors make music that's momentary and always ready to change.
"It's very much a musical collective in D.C.," Donohue explains, understating it as if he's forgotten he now lives in New York City. East Coast collective, perhaps? "We share each other and all kind of play in each other's bands. It's fun and just a really good vibe."
As Donohue's time in his previous band, the Stones-meet-Stooges Carlsonics, was coming to an end, Donny Hue was born: "It started off as a Christmas record that I made for all my friends. I was poor and didn't have any money to buy presents, so I just made songs for people. Those songs led into other songs, and eventually I invited others to join in."
The others joined him in a basement called the "Wunderground." The Wunderground was full of Christmas lights and underused instruments—a glockenspiel, percussion pieces, an autoharp. Donohue started writing, using his subterranean habitat like a secret laboratory, infusing lines from discarded Hammonds and Wurlitzers into clever, narrative songs lined by beach-blanket vocals. Donohue built the songs largely in isolation, but he always kept them simple because he knew he'd want his friends to add their own ideas.
When it came time to record, the band assembled. They'd never played a show. They went into the studio, started jamming on Donohue's skeleton songs and came out two days later with Folkmote, a debut that blends the huge swells of Spiritualized with the bittersweet bounce of Elephant 6's finest. A guitar is as important as a piano, and secondary instruments like a melodica or a Theremin are no longer secondary. With the long-winded verse structure of a 1965 Bob Dylan cut, the addictive garage stomp of the best Nuggets gems and the flower-bazaar theatrics of the Olivia Tremor Control, a Donny Hue song keeps you just a few feet off the ground, lost in a multi-hued slipstream of a band that's eclectic out of principle and pragmatism.
"That's why I keep the songs simple, because I like to just bang them out while keeping the improvisation there," Donohue explains, at home in Brooklyn, a good chunk of interstate away from the rest of the band. "We're still a little bit unsure of what's going on, and I kinda think that's cool."
Folkmote relies on the sum of its parts, much like a Donny Hue and the Colors show. Live, the sound depends on which Colors are present, so that a Nether replaced by a member of Order of the Dying Orchid suddenly brings something else into the mix. A gig can feel like Bob Dylan and the Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers or Pavement. Each color lends a new sound. Right now, the Colors include members of Washington Social Club, Nethers and Order of the Dying Orchid. Two members are ex-Carlsonics, but that's all subject to change. Donohue hasn't even found all of the Colors yet.
"If you come," says Donohue, "be prepared to potentially get involved and join the band. There is a possibility you may end up with a tambourine. You may get a whole drum set or maybe even a glockenspiel."
So, what's your color?
Donny Hue and the Colors plays with Barghest and Hold Hands & Run at Blend Sunday, Sept. 9. The show starts at 9 p.m.