Vinnie Donatelle of Friend Dog talks about opening for John Mayer, gigging with his new band, and The Last Revel's life-changing resurgence
Flip Rushmore is celebrating the release of their new EP, Choose Your Villains Wisely, at the 7th St Entry on Wed., Aug. 10. Friend Dog, comprised of Vinnie Donatelle, Lauren Anderson, and Nate LeBrun, is a featured guest on the bill. Vinnie, who spoke with us in 2021, got on the phone with Flip's Alex Smith for a follow-up interview as he balances between Friend Dog and his much more high-profile Americana trio, The Last Revel.
Alex: Alright, we need to talk about the John Mayer thing. The Last Revel is opening for him [Aug. 21] in Wyoming? I know you have a big following out there. How did the booking come together?
Vinnie: That was out of the blue. There’s a venue in Paradise Valley called Pine Creek Lodge, where the show is happening, that’s pretty near and dear to our hearts. We’ve hosted a couple mini music festivals out there. And Ryan [Acker, of The Last Revel] actually met his now-wife at Pine Creek.
The day after we played there this summer, there was some massive flooding along the Yellowstone River that destroyed a lot of property and basically closed West Yellowstone for the season, which really throws a wrench in the economy out there. All the folks who depend on that tourism are kinda SOL for the season again after getting beat up by COVID, too.
So John Mayer, who has a ranch out there, decided to put together this show and hit up our friend, Chip, who owns Pine Creek Lodge, and asked if he could set up a couple shows there to fundraise. Chip, of course, said, “of course,” [laughs] and that led to John Mayer’s team to say, “Ask two of of your favorite bands to play,” so Chip called Ryan.
Alex: I assume you knew you weren’t getting pranked because it was Chip calling you, but what was your reaction to the news?
Vinnie: Well, he tried to call us at like 2 in the morning, when we were driving home from a festival. And we were, like, dude, slow your role. We don’t know what this is about, but it can wait until tomorrow. So when Ryan talked to him the next day, we all just kind of froze and said, “that’s insane. There’s no way that’s actually happening.” But sure enough…
Alex: What kind of venue are we talking about? What’s the cap on that place?
I think it’s 1,000.
Alex: So pretty intimate for something like that.
Vinnie: Yeah, and 1,000 is a lot of people in that space. We played to 500 or 600 people before. That felt really packed. It’s basically a small little resort with a nice kitchen that has a bunch of storage container rooms surrounding a stage. People rent out these cabins if they want, or just drive up to the shows. That’s the gist of it.
Alex: Of course, that’s all Last Revel stuff. I’m curious because Friend Dog was filling this vacuum for you when The Last Revel hit pause [in 2021]. We talked about it last year, like, Friend Dog was going to be something for yourself. Something new. How does it fit into your musical life in the moment?
Vinnie: That’s a tough question. To be honest, this year has been so insane with The Last Revel coming back together that I’m still trying to catch myself up to everything happening. I don’t think any of us in The Last Revel thought we were going to be received the way we were this summer, when we first got back together. Under that auspice, it was like, “Everybody’s got their solo projects. This is just a passion project on the side to rekindle an old friendship. Just see where things go.” But the momentum from this summer makes it seem like more than just that.
That opens up Friend Dog to be a lot lower pressure to be any one thing. I feel a lot more comfortable having this project be whatever it is in the moment. It looks like a number of things. Actually having solo performances and putting together a band for certain shows. Also being able to build newer arrangements … if I want to sit down and play a 45-minute set of looping fiddle over itself, I feel pretty comfortable doing something like that. This is entirely more of a push toward creative experimentation.
That being said, the set that I have for [Wednesday], I’m just really excited to share it. It’s pretty rock ‘n’ roll in a way that’s not really like what I do with The Last Revel. And in some ways the influences kind of blend.
… These are a bunch of new songs that I feel good about. I’m really interested in seeing what the pressure of playing them onstage will do to them. And I don’t feel hung up about perfecting them until I get to that point. I feel confident enough in myself and the musicians I’m playing with to throw around new ideas and be somewhat improvisational.
Alex: What’s your history with the band you’ll have onstage with you Wednesday?
Vinnie: Lauren [Anderson] is playing bass. She was actually playing bass in The Last Revel for a few years and performed on the [Friend Dog] EP. Nate [LeBrun] got in the picture last summer. I’ve known him through friends of friends for awhile now. We started playing music together around the time I released the first Friend Dog EP [last year].
Alex: You’re obviously in a much more high-profile trio at the moment. You mentioned getting to flex that rock ‘n’ roll muscle a little bit in Friend Dog, but what are some of the differences when you’re playing with this group vs. The Last Revel?
Vinnie: The Last Revel, everybody has already hit the road and cut their teeth pretty hard. We’re all at a similar point of view in our career. Whereas, Friend Dog is less that. Everybody’s coming from a different perspective, and … there’s more of a beginner’s lens coming at the Friend Dog project, if that makes sense.
Alex: And I think that includes you, to an extent, because your history is not with the guitar so much as other instruments. And last year you alluded to that, saying this was going to be a chance to try something new for yourself. Is that a proper interpretation?
Vinnie: Yeah. And both projects have collaboration, but when working out songs with Friend Dog, there’s a lot more of “eyes on me” perspective. Lauren and Nate want to know what I want the song to lean into, or what I’m hearing, vs. right away bringing their own interpretation of what the song could be.
Alex: Sure, sure. I’ll just give you one or two more here, for both our sakes. Transcription is always so annoying. And the last time we talked, I think we went for 45 minutes, and now you’ve got a novel about your life on the Internet.
Vinnie: [laughs] I appreciate it.
Alex: So a couple times you’ve said you’re going through a lot at the moment, with The Last Revel resurgence and how well that’s gone. Like, you haven’t had a chance to catch your breath. With all of these big shows coming up, is there a light at the end? Do you feel like you’re gonna finally feel like you’ve got it figured out again?
Vinnie: Shit. No. [laughs] I feel like, maybe I’ll … I don’t know. I don’t think so. There won’t be a point in the near future where everything is set up so perfectly and neatly that all I need to do is show up and plug in. But that’s kinda the business we call show.
I see this fall kind of narrowing some things down. We have a lot of irons in the fire with where we want 2023 to go, but I think, also, recording is going to be on the forefront of both Friend Dog and Last Revel. We’re going back up to the UP of Michigan to record the second half of an album we started recording this summer. Then in November I’d like to go back into the studio with Lauren and Nate to record more Friend Dog songs. Whatever that turns into being. Hopefully release those over the winter.
But, I mean, at this point, it’s like, take all the opportunities that come. Be mindful about not overextending yourself. And that’s kinda all I can really do at the moment.
Get your tickets here for Flip Rushmore's EP Release Party featuring Friend Dog and Lazenlow. And be sure to stream Flip's new EP, Choose Your Villains Wisely, on Spotify or wherever else you listen to music.