Album Review – Daniel Donato’s “Reflector”

photo: Jason Stoltzfus

Prepare yourself for one of the most interesting, omnivorous, and immersive experiences that you can discover in music that still claims an allegiance to “country.” It’s Daniel Donato’s Reflector, and it’s the realization of his “cosmic country” dream first envisioned years ago, but finally coming to fruition in its full form now.

Giving you warm recollections of some of the best cuts from the catalogs of greats like The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead, yet steeped fiercely in the traditions of take off Telecaster country, it’s all rendered with imagination and originality through Daniel Donato’s striking instrumental talent, surprising ear for melody, and enhanced aptitude for composition.

It’s a jam band album. It’s a traditional country album. It’s a psychedelic California country album. But instead of mashing together these sometimes disparate influences, Donato exploits all the common threads between them and weaves together a brilliant musical tapestry that envelops an open-minded audience in musical bliss.

Daniel Donato is no stranger, nor is he a new kid on the block. He was busking on the streets of Lower Broadway in Nashville at the age of 14, and a few years later was the lead guitarist of the legendary Don Kelly Band that held court at Robert’s Western World for so many years. Donato played no less than 464 shows on the Robert’s stage, and not just 90-minute sets, but those 4-hour marathons where you’re required to know the entire repertoire of country standards front to back and play them until your fingers bleed.

During the same era that Donato was going through this country music boot camp, he was also digging deep into a pile Grateful Dead bootlegs, expanding his musical horizons and appetite. Donato released his debut album A Young Man’s Country in 2020 to a warm reception. But despite the positive results, it still felt like the prototype, like Donato was still probing to find his full sound. His ambition still outpaced his resources, and his voice felt a little exposed.

With Reflector, Donato is finally able to put it all together and deliver a more cohesive and organic experience, with side players Nathan Aronowitz on keyboards and harmonies, Will McGee on bass, and Noah Miller on drums and percussion all active participants in the process. The legendary Vance Powell produced it all, and Reflector feels like an arrival for Donato who is destined to be a force for many years to come.

One simple way you could consider Daniel Donato is the country music version of Billy Strings. They’re both steeped in their traditions, but fearless to explore what’s beyond. Yet where Strings openly professes his struggle to exploit the studio space, this is where Daniel Donato excels. Though jam band elements work their way into the process, only two songs stretch over five minutes. Donato and Vance Powell understand not just how to make music, but how to make an album.

Some may balk at the somewhat foggy rendering of the master recordings here, especially on Donato’s voice. This is one of those albums where they try to imbue it with a vintage feel. Though for some who favor clear signals this approach can be frustrating to the ear, this works for Donato since his voice carries little natural dirt. Making the signals a little gritty gives Reflector that worn-in feel.

There are plenty of jam-like roots-oriented bands such as Leftover Salmon or Widespread Panic that as a country fan you wish would just be a bit more country. This is the space Daniel Donato steps right up into. He’s played in the bands of the Grateful Dead greats Bobby Weir and Bill Kreutzmann, and Billy Strings has joined Donato on stage to dazzle audiences together as well. But just when you think Donato’s getting a little too out there, he’ll burst out a run on the Telecaster and reel it back in.

With 15 songs, even if you don’t dig everything, there will be something that appeals to you. If you’re more into the chicken pickin’ country material, zero in on the instrumentals of “Sugar Leg Rag” or “Locomotive #9,” or the song “Half Moon Night.” If it’s more the Allman Bros. style you seek, try out “Lose Your Mind,” “Hi-Country,” and the album’s 8-minute opus “Gotta Get Southbound.”

This isn’t a songwriter record, it’s a musical groove record, and a really good one. Maybe his “Dance In The Desert” installments are too much like disco country for country fans, but that might be what others latch onto first. There is no shortage of artists and bands these days prefacing their music with “psyc.” But it’s so often just window dressing and shallow styling like fuzz in the guitar signal as opposed to putting in the deeper work of what constitutes that other-worldly experience first pioneered in the ’60s.

Daniel Donato started out as a student and an apprentice of some of the greatest musical makers in American history. With Reflector, he steps into a position to be one of the premier guitarists and performers for the new generation exploring the increasingly blurring lines between the roots of country and the expansive world of musical improvisation.


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