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Joe Donohue III of The Albrights

photo by David Kafer

He’s Talented, He Rocks, He’s Gay & He Has His Sister’s Kidney

Joe Donohue III takes in everything he sees on the street as he walks casually to his Artvoice interview at Code Blu Juice bar. Having recently performed his first starring role as the title character in MusicalFare’s production of The Who’s Tommy, Donohue is now working with his three band mates from The Albrights on finishing their second full-length release.

This is his first solo interview and Donohue, the only gay guy in his band, is comfortable and unassuming.

“Usually I have three other guys with me,” he says. Donohue asks for a mason jar of pureed fruits and vegetables and I ask for his first musical memory.

“‘The Greatest Love’ by Whitney Houston,” he replies, “I used to sing her songs and play with blocks while my mom was doing ceramics. I would sing along and say I was going to marry her.”

The son of parents who met through music—his mother sang and his father played piano—he knew at a young age that he would be a musician.

“I didn’t know about writing or playing but I knew that it was bound to happen,” he says.

By age five, he was studying the Suzuki method and playing Mozart. His ear was being trained well, but less so his ability to read and write music.

“When they found out I couldn’t read music they fired the teacher and kicked me out, and after that I kind of just taught myself at home,” he says.

The Albrights

Donohue has been friends with The Albrights bass player, Matthew Crane since sixth grade. Crane started as band roadie, then temporary drummer, and finally settled in on bass. Donohue met Brandon Barry, singer/songwriter/guitarist, right after high school and they played together in a cover band for five years, “in seedy bars for crap money.” When he first met Albrights drummer Dustin Herzberger—who approached him out one night—Donohue thought he was hitting on him, but Herzberger actually was interested in joining the band.

The years when Donohue and Barry (and sometimes Crane on drums) were playing cover songs in bars they learned a lot, including that it was not what they wanted to do. Still the experience taught them some things.

“We learned how to handle ourselves in a bar atmosphere, how to get paid in a bar, how to not get screwed over by bar owners, and we found some good places that weren’t trying to take advantage of us,” Donohue says of those days. “At some point we thought, ‘We have to write our own songs and we have to make some money if we’re going to take this seriously.’”

After tossing through a few names—including The Rusty Spoons—they settled on the one that stuck.

“We all took a trip to the art gallery one day and Brandon suggested The Albrights. At first we thought it was tacky because we were in Buffalo, but we sat on it and it just made sense.”

One of these is not like the others

Though stereotypes dictate that gay men generally excel as entertainers, playing rock band gigs at blue-collar bars is not the first thing that comes to mind. But as the band grew in popularity and people became familiar with their original songs, it was not just women and gays that responded to Donohue.

“I was surprised to see there were a lot straight guys singing along and it blew my mind,” Donohue says. “They’re standing there. They’re not dancing or anything, but they’re listening and sometimes singing. I always had a hard time relating to straight guys like that.”

In his writing and performance, Donohue is not outwardly gay, and the band doesn’t play any gay venues, but he certainly is not hiding anything either. His songwriting comes from personal experience and emotions.

When asked to list his three favorite albums growing up, Donohue names three staples in the collection of many gay guys who came of age in the 80s and 90s: Madonna’s Like A Prayer, No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom, and Tori Amos’s From the Choirgirl Hotel.

Discussing Amos in particular, he said he admires her intensely personal writing that is also open to interpretation to the listener.

“I try and keep it that way,” he says. “I don’t want people to feel duped if I’m saying ‘she’ in a love song. Like ‘Wait a minute, he’s gay I thought.’”

Women often express interest in Donohue after seeing him perform and he’s found ways to deal with that.

“Sometimes I’ll buy them a drink and tell them about a guy I’m interested in,” he says “They figure it out after a couple minutes. Or I just wander away and let someone else tell them.”

Although Donohue said he often felt like an outcast growing up and experienced difficulty relating to straight guys, the artistic efforts of The Albrights has brought both local success and close personal friendships with three straight guys.

Surprisingly, the success of The Albrights has been interwoven with some forays into theater. Their bluegrass band played in the Subversive Theater Collective’s production of The Furies of Mother Jones, which led them to meet actor/director Chris Kelly, who then hired them for his re-imagined production of Oliver! at MusicalFare.

“Chris Kelly has everything to do with our name getting popular in the way that it has,” Donohue says. Kelly now serves as the band’s manager

As MusicalFare was casting its recent production of The Who’s Tommy, Donohue was invited to audition. He did not show up.

“There’s not a chance I’m getting this, there’s no point,” he thought at the time. When asked a second time, he gave it a shot. “They called and said I got it and I was just so surprised and nervous.”

His performance as Tommy earned an Artie Nomination this year for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical.

“I sang my face off,” he says. “No guitar to hide behind, no piano to play. My favorite part about that was just meeting more people in the theater community. You get to be around vets and kids. I’m kind of the middle. I feel like it’s a good place to be.”

When asked about the current state of the music business Donohue says that consumers are inundated with material and so are forced to be smarter about finding music. Further, he said the band relies heavily on the local community. Fortunately, that community still shows their support for The Albrights.

Kidney Transplant

Donohue has been blessed with talent and good fortune. However, he’s also had staggering health challenges. At age 16, while a student at Frontier High School, he was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.

“I was in a coma for two weeks and had a bunch of amputations scheduled,” he says “My ear was going to be cut off and my fingers turned black. I lost a couple toes and my kidneys had permanent damage.

“It was miraculous, because these body parts turned black and then turned pink again and it just doesn’t happen like that. Usually with that disease you either die or you’re severely, severely disfigured.”

Donohue made it through high school with his native kidneys, which were functioning at about 15% and went to SUNY Fredonia to study classical voice. There he received a call that the results of his routine blood work were bad.

“So they said you’ve got to come in and talk about end stage renal disease, transplant, death,” he recalls. At age 20, his sister donated a kidney and he had a transplant which was successful until his body rejected it after three and a half years, resulting in him going on dialysis. He then received a second transplant, this time donated by another sister.

“I try and take care of it,” he says of his sisters’ donations. “I’m diligent with my medication. That’s the biggest thing–medication and water. If I wear myself out I get sick and end up in the hospital. It’s grueling.”

When asked what his dream future might look like, Donohue’s dream is built on friends.

“Ideally you have this big house and the basement’s a huge recording studio and everyone just hangs out. Everyone’s doing something, commune type situation. We’ve talked about it a bunch of times in our group of friends. We’ve been unusually involved in each other’s lives for 15 years, some of us. The band, the girlfriends, the wives, the kids. Friends, whoever.”

The Albrights self-titled album will be released on July 19 and can be found at

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