David Dondero's Opening Act 

As "The Transient," the folksinger turned his grief into material. But for his second act, can he go farther?

Last February, Dave Dondero performed as an opening act for Rilo Kiley, the highly touted band on indie-folk label Saddle Creek. That evening's Noise Pop audience at San Francisco's Swedish American Hall was decidedly hip -- mopheads and sideburns, trucker hats and self-knit scarves. As Dondero raised the mic to reach his six-foot-one frame, he looked distinctly out of place. With his neatly combed hair, corduroy pants, and tucked-in button-down shirt, he looked as if he might rush a fraternity -- and a dry one at that. The crowd of about a hundred paid him scant attention and continued to talk, just as they had during the act that preceded him.

"I've-ah," Dondero began, hesitating as if he were sorry to interrupt the crowd. "I've-ah got a song for you about Joseph P. Strauss. ... For those of you who don't know, Joseph P. Strauss was the chief engineer who designed the Golden Gate Bridge."

Then Dondero flat-picked a repetitive triplet -- ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da, ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da -- until the audience offered its silence. It was the first time he had played the song in the city, and he was feeling a bit nervous. The moments ticked by as an uneasy, almost hostile, tension built. When would this guy start singing? How long could he hold the crowd hostage with the same riff? But his trick managed to get their attention.

Finally, the words spewed out in the quick cadence of a spoken-word poet.

We walked across the Golden Gate Bridge

I swear I didn't do what I did

I didn't watch her fall, I didn't care at all

I just walked across the Golden Gate Bridge

(Ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da,

Ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da)

I know that there were no witnesses

The fog had just begun to creep in

It wrapped around my mind, it wrapped around the moment

I know that there were no witnesses

She was something in her prime

Then she took to tweakin' 'n' lyin'

We used to dance and sing, now we don't do a thing

Yeah, but she was somethin' in her prime

(Ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da,

Ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da)

That bridge is a modern miracle

Thousands of tons hung from a cable

But water's like concrete if you hit it at that speed

If she lived it'd be a modern miracle

'Twas when I heard the fog horn blow

An ocean freighter crept down below

But I could hardly see, the icy wind was dice-in' me

I opened up my hand and I let my pistol go into the fog below

(Ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da

Ba da dunt dunt dunt dunt-da)

Then Dondero took what seemed like his first extended breath and said, "Foreshadow."

For the next eight minutes, he continued with the same riff while spinning out a hardboiled noir yarn by the name of "Double Murder Ballad Suicide." While the sparseness of his guitar playing and the slightly unhinged quality of his singing are what first attracted the crowd, his considerable skills as a storyteller commanded their attention after that. What would he say next? Where would the story go? And why was Dirty Harry Callahan assigned to the case?

He finished the song with:

So I took a bus out to the Golden Gate Bridge

The bridge was packed full of tourists and kids

I said, 'Kid, wanna see a trick?

Somethin' twisted and sick?'

And I jumped right off the Golden Gate Bridge

After that, the crowd was his.

Opening Act Wins in the Stretch

A few weeks ago, Dondero was at Albany's Golden Gate Fields, looking to make a bet. He'd been on the road for nearly a year since the Noise Pop performance and had also recorded an album in Austin. Recently, he'd moved into a room in San Francisco's Mission District and returned to bartending.

He'd been out drinking the night before, so his face was still soft, cheeks still red, and voice still hoarse. He wore a winter coat and a red stocking cap that fell off his head to one side. Since he didn't know much about the complexities of picking the ponies -- nor did he want to -- Dondero glanced down at his racing program, said Fuck it, then employed the pikers' strategy: He picked the best name.

Weepinball, Haint-It-Hot, Conned Again, and Military Singer failed to catch his eye. But the number six horse, Opening Act, spoke to him. Heading to the betting window, he said, "I have to go with Opening Act."

The 35-year-old singer-songwriter picks his horses like he writes his songs: simply, and without thinking too much. Even though he's a folksinger, he bah-humbugs the bleeding-heart compulsions that seem to inspire most folk music. "I can't think of anything worse than watching a guy get up there with his guitar who just wants to spew his guts out," he said after placing the bet. "It's painful for everybody."

Dondero styles himself as an anti-folksinger, a writer who turns genre clichés on their heads while carefully avoiding all-out parody. It's a tightrope walk. Lean too far one way and you're a goofball with a guitar, à la Jack Black. Too much to the other side, and you're just another earnest liberal with a microphone.


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