When David Dondero plays shows in Pensacola, primarily two groups of people get happy. First his local fans, and second, his local friends. As Dondero’s one-time home in the late 1990s, Pensacola continues to be a regular stop on his tours and a place the acclaimed singer-songwriter still looks forward to visiting.
“Pensacola is just beautiful. It’s very much a dream-like place to me. It definitely has a quality like no other place on earth. The low hanging clouds coming off the Gulf, I always remember that,” Dondero recalled from Milwaukee during a recent phone call with the IN. “It’s like a very comforting place to go back and be there—an old familiar face, you know? I love it.”
Dondero is currently on the road in support of his ninth studio album, “This Guitar,” which he released on Nov. 3. In 2006, Robin Hilton of NPR’s All Songs Considered listed Dondero as one of the 10 Best Living Songwriters, and on “This Guitar” his ability to put stories centered on love, politics, and characters he’s met over the years to song shines as strongly as on any album he’s made.
“Sometimes it comes out much later in various forms,” said Dondero of the stories told through the album, some of which he started forming into songs seven years ago. “Certain things happen and it takes a little while to digest them and then bring them out.”
Song inspirations on “This Guitar” range from a transgender female friend in “Samantha’s Got a Bag of Coal” to the border fence and U.S. immigration policy in “New Berlin Wall” to his feelings towards his guitar, a Gibson Hummingbird, in the title track.
Dondero funded recording of “This Guitar” and an early-career retrospective titled “Golden Hits Vol. 1” via a Kickstarter campaign in early 2013. Both albums were recorded to tape, pressed to vinyl and are available through Dondero’s Bandcamp site. The effort was something Dondero found to be a welcome departure from the traditional process of working with a record label.
“I’ve done a lot of records through record labels; it’s never been a very positive experience, as far as making a living,” Dondero said of his choice to go the Kickstarter route. “My buddy Simon Joyner in Omaha had done it successfully and so did Franz Nicolay in New York, so I talked to those guys and decided to try it out.”
Through Kickstarter, Dondero raised over $12,000 for the releases, offering perks including screen printed T-shirts and artwork that he made himself. Dondero screen prints all of his tour T-shirts, a skill he learned from members of Pensacola’s This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, interestingly enough.
“The old model of record labels is kind of designed to keep the artists out of the loop as far as making any money, but the new model of Kickstarter and crowdfunding kind of turns that completely around,” said Dondero.
Having direct contact with the people who contributed and were excited about the projects was another appealing aspect of the experience, according to Dondero. “I think the whole thing has been really positive, I’m very happy to have done it.”
In July, Dondero released “Golden Hits Vol. 1” a collection of acoustic versions of songs originally recorded from 1998 to 2003. The original versions feature instrumentation beyond Dondero’s typical one man with a guitar tour setup; coupled with the fact that his former record labels were requiring payment to use the original versions on a compilation, Dondero decided to go his own way and produce new recordings. “I rerecorded them in a folk style,” said Dondero. “I travel alone so I wanted to put a more real representation of the songs the way I travel with them.”
“The idea was to put out four songs from the first four albums,” Dondero explained, laughing. “There’s never been any hits, so the title is kind of tongue in cheek, kind of a joke.”
But for fans, the joke could be somewhat lost, at least in a sentimental sense. Even though Dondero may not have yet enjoyed the sweeping commercial success of fellow NPR-listers like Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen, his honesty as a songwriter and artist makes him a favorite of many a person who still care to hear a protest song or who regard a hit as something other than a chart-topper.
And while fans and friends will be happy to see Dondero back in Pensacola, he is looking forward to playing for them again, too. “Going to the Handlebar will be really nice because that’s one of the first places I ever got to play back in the early 90s,” said Dondero. “It’s got a lot of good energy. I’ll be happy to go see the Lamars and play on that stage again—and see some old friends.”
DAVID DONDERO AT THE HANDLEBAR
WHAT: David Dondero with Bear With Me and Jaclyn Kerry
WHEN: 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22
WHERE: The Handlebar, 319 N. Tarragona St.
COST: $8 for age 21 and over, $10 for 18-20
DETAILS: pensacolahandlebar.com or 434-9060