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Donovan leads stellar band in real, emotional record

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Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Jim Donovan rehearsing with his band on Saturday Feb. 6, 2016.
ptrtkdonovan02031016
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Jim Donovan and his band on Saturday Feb. 6, 2016.

Jim Donovan wanted his new album to be real and emotional and as close to perfect as possible. He wanted the music to serve as a love letter to his family, just in case the two health scares he experienced in the past few years returned.

Not least of all, Donovan wanted to prove, to himself and the fans who know him from his tenure in Rusted Root, that he is capable of being a band leader.

“My own ground rule to myself is, whatever I do now is going to be to the highest level and have as much joy as possible,” says Donovan, who will release “Sun King Warriors” March 12 at Mr. Smalls Theatre in Millvale. “If today’s my last day, I at least want to leave like that.”

Donovan, a Greensburg resident, accomplished all he set off to do with assistance from a stellar band, a patient but exacting producer (Sean McDonald at Red Medicine Record Studio in Swissvale) and a willingness to follow the music, whatever course it took.

“This record could be anything,” he says. “I don’t have to be a jam band or a Rusted Root clone. I don’t have to be anything. This record could be whatever it had to be.”

Donovan took five years to record “Sun King Warriors,” which also is the name of the band. But despite the extended recording process, the album has a cohesive flow. There are songs with pop affectations, such as “Blend Into You” and “I’m Doing Fine”; two atmospheric love songs, “Can’t Stop Falling” and “Right in Front of Me”; and a suite of songs — “Olalala,” “March of the Sun King Warriors” and “You Got to Believe” — linked by a hypnotic, rhythmic intensity.

“I would not release any song that didn’t come from an intense, true, emotional space,” Donovan says. “Each song is real to me, as personal as it gets. I know the power of emotion and how that plays and draws a listener in. I know how I am when I listen to someone who is not afraid to go there, emotionally. I wanted to see if I could do that.”

To flesh out his vision in the studio, Donovan enlisted guitarists Rob James of The Clarks and Kevin McDonald of Tres Lads and Kent Tonkin, a bass player from the Altoona area. He plays drums on the recording but employs drummer Joe Marini for live shows, along with percussionists Harry Pepper and Bryan Fazio, and Dan Murphy.

“Each musician,” Donovan says, “has a brilliance about them that allows me to soak up something brand-new every night.”

Being able to play well, however, was just one of Donovan’s requirements.

“I wanted them to be guys I’d want to hang out with beyond music,” Donovan says. “I can call them up anytime and have a great conversation. … If this is my project for the rest of my days, I want to be with people I love and love being with. And that’s who these guys are.”

What remains to be seen is whether Donovan can finally shed the tag of “formerly of Rusted Root” via “Sun King Warriors.” While he maintains an affection for the group he left in 2005, Donovan wants his music to stand on its own merits.

“I keep telling (the band) that our goal is for people to come to shows and leave going, ‘What the heck just happened?’e_STnS” Donovan says. “I want them to leave feeling differently than when they came.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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