Music Preview: Former Rusted Root drummer Jim Donovan steps out front with Sun King Warriors
March 10, 2016 12:00 AM
Jim Donovan & Sun King Warriors, from left, Dan Murphy, Bryan Fazio, Jim Donovan, Sean McDonald, Joe Marini, Harry Pepper and Kent Tonkin.
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jim Donovan treasured his time in Rusted Root, and when he left the band in 2004 after 14 years, the drummer says, “I personally felt tapped out.”
He had accomplished a lot with the band — a double-platinum album, tours with Santana, Plant/Page, etc. — and was worn down from the touring and ready to focus on family life. He played his last show two days after his third child was born.
Jim Donovan & Sun King Warriors
With: Tupelo Donovan and Jeremy Levin.
Where: Mr. Smalls, Millvale.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $15 advance; $20 day of show; www.ticketfly.com.
“It was hard to make the move, but I knew inside it was the right move for everybody,” he says. “In any group, if one person isn’t happy, they should take themselves out. I knew that either I was going to get off the road or regret not seeing my kids grow up and help to raise them.”
With a bachelor’s degree in music performance from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s in education from St. Francis University, Loretto, Pa., where he is the chairman of the fine arts department, he turned his attention to doing drum instruction and seminars and wrote the book “Drum Circle Leadership.”
Although he doesn’t regret leaving Rusted Root, he admits he felt a void not being part of a band.
Now he has one, and it’s not what you’d expect. Rather than going the route of, say, Mickey Hart, with a drum jamming project, he is stepping out front as the singer-songwriter-guitarist of the “groove-rock” band Jim Donovan & Sun King Warriors.
Singer-guitarist? When did that happen?
“Since the mid-’90s, I’ve been amassing songs and writing,” he says. “There was a time when different folks in the band started bringing in material. They weren’t ‘Rusted Root’ songs, they didn’t sound like what we were doing, so that wasn’t an outlet.” One of his songs for the band, “Extreme,” went unreleased but turned up occasionally in shows.
When he left Root, he put songwriting aside until he did a study-abroad trip to Italy in 2010, and, while missing his kids, the song “The One You’re Growing Into” came to him out of nowhere.
Soon after, he had two health scares that put him in the back of an ambulance. The first was a feared heart attack, the second a feared brain tumor. They both turned out to be just “scares,” but, he says, “It shook me to the core and gave me motivation to do all these things I’ve always wanted to do — for myself, and also for the kids. They just know me as dad and teacher. I wanted them to see what I’m capable of.”
He went back to the songs and started recording on his own, before beginning to add band members including the hardest piece: someone who could come close to his drumming. He found that in Joe Marini. Handling the guitar leads are Kevin McDonald and guest Warrior Rob James of the Clarks. (His daughters Tupelo and Ella do backup vocals on two songs and son Oliver plays percussion on one.)
Those expecting it to sound like Rusted Root will be surprised. Sun King Warriors do venture into reggae and “Graceland” world music territory, but also hit heavier with Zeppelin-sized riffs. Mr. Donovan’s strong vocals put him in that rare company of drummers (Phil Collins, Levon Helm, Don Henley among them) worthy of singing lead.
Before Liz Berlin of Root approached him in the hallway of the Pitt music building and pitched him on playing drums for Root, Mr. Donovan was a hard rocker from rural Somerset County who played in the band Apache Black that performed a lot of ZZ Top covers.
“I was raised in southern PA listening to WDVE every day and listening to tons and tons of Led Zeppelin. I’ve always skewed harder. I like the riff-driven stuff. And,” he adds about Rusted Root, “it was always a thorn in my side that I could never get the drums as big as I wanted them.”
Because stepping out as frontman of Sun King Warriors didn’t feel like the most natural move at first, he made his debut in a low-key way at a drumming retreat.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” he says. “I’ve got so much respect and compassion for Michael [Glabicki, Root frontman]. It’s all the wires; you’re connected to something. You can’t just move around, and there’s no protection up in the front. I’m used to having an offensive line up there that can block. It’s nerve-wracking, exhilarating, up there.”
Those missing his power behind the kit will get some of that, as the band will have two kits set up for the ferocious drum jam “March of the Sun King Warriors.”
Although the music is harder and less on the hippie side of Rusted Root, he doesn’t think the two bands would be out of place together.
“I think the vibe, the positivity will appeal to those folks,” he says of Root fans. “They tend to like to dance, so I see how some of that will fit, and I’m hoping to appeal to other people beyond that, too.”
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576; Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.
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