Photos by David Stuck
Oct. 17, 2020, was an unusually auspicious Saturday for a picnic and live music. In the afternoon, the parking lot at Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard filled with a steady stream of cars as picnickers spread across the lawns, gathered at outdoor tables and waited in line to buy wine.
The seven-month-old pandemic had bottomed out and, after months of fear, chaos, bad news, illness and death, lockdowns and self-isolation, it didn’t seem like quite the risk it had been to gather under a benevolent autumn sun and listen to live music that was comfortable and familiar, the four-piece acoustic band called Donuts for Dinner enjoying the day as much as everyone else.
“We were surprised at how big the crowd was,” says the band’s drummer, Mark Bleich. “There were cars coming in and coming in.”
For Mark and his bandmates — sisters Melissa Pritchard and Shannon Sanchez, and Joe Dito — there was a sense that this beautiful fall day was on loan.
“We were excited because it was the first gig that whole summer,” says Joe, guitarist and vocalist, who started the show at Sugarloaf by launching into the ballad of murder and love denied “Fool for Love.”
For seven years, Donuts for Dinner has gigged around Gaithersburg and sometimes beyond, playing breweries and wine bars. Cover versions of rock, folk, country and alt songs elbow each other on the band’s set list — Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Willie Nelson and the Beatles, gobs of Beatles — the familiar songs transposed and distilled to acoustic guitars, drums and the occasional ukulele.
Shannon, guitarist and vocalist, came up with the band’s name: Donuts for Dinner contains no obscure rock reference, no ironic pretension, just some goofy alliteration. And who doesn’t like donuts?
Their gigs are invariably attended by spouses, parents, children and grandchildren. Alumni of the Kentlands Acoustic Jam, the four would play together even if they couldn’t perform in public (and they have).
“It isn’t about making it big. It’s about we enjoy playing,” Joe says. “And I think that comes across when we play.”
Meet the Donuts
They balance each other out. That becomes clear as they talk over drinks at Gaithersburg’s Rio Center, despite the more than 30 years that separates the group’s oldest and youngest members.
Joe is 68 and retired from a corporate career. A behatted, shaved-headed grandfather, he embodies a love of ‘60s rock and roll, the soundtrack of his childhood.
At the other end is Shannon, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mother of three. Her older sister, bass player and vocalist Melissa, is 40, a mom of four and a math teacher at Lakelands Park Middle School. Mark, 54, has three adult daughters and works for the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.
“The makeup of the band is unique,” Mark says. “We have two men and two women. The age difference from youngest to the oldest is pretty wide. It isn’t like a couple other bands I’ve been in; they were just all guys, all around the same age.”
“We’re the eye candy,” Joe says, grinning at Mark.
Yeah,” says Mark. “We bring in the crowds. The chicks really dig us.”
There’s also a distinct balance of temperaments.
It’s Shannon who introduces the group on stage, who responds to applause with “thank you, thank you,” and who alerts listeners that Donuts for Dinner is about to take a beer break.
Asked how she got the job of group banterist, she says flatly, “I’m the spokesperson because I’m the most outgoing. I’m the default person at the microphone.”
“You kind of fell into that role,” Joe tells her.
“It’s not a role! Because it’s awkward. We’re waiting too long between songs. I don’t want them just to be sitting there. I don’t really enjoy it that much, because I don’t ever know what’s going to come out of my mouth.”
There was the time she announced to the crowd “that Joe married me.” Dito, ordained by an online ministry, did officiate at Shannon’s wedding. But that’s not how the audience heard it. “And his wife was there,” Shannon says.
Joe is the group’s other extrovert. “Joe would do it,” Shannon says, knowing what can happen when he speaks extemporaneously. “Tell them about your daughter-in-law’s contractions. Before a gig one time, we were talking about his daughter-in-law’s labor problems. Into the microphone.”
“When you consider the personalities, it’s like Joe and Shannon are more Type A,” Mark says. “And during practice they’ll get into an argument, and Melissa and I will just sit back, watching the show.”
“Shannon and I are very similar,” Melissa says to laughter from the others. “She’s the outgoing version of me.”
John, Paul, George and Graeme Edge
Joe Dito was 11 in 1964, when the Beatles made their American debut on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” The black and white footage and the wall of screaming fans seem innocent today. But if your TV was tuned to CBS that Sunday evening, as Joe’s was, and if you were the right age, as Joe was, the Beatles not only changed rock and roll, they transformed you, too, and became your deepest, most lasting musical influence.
“It was quick. It was instantaneous,” Joe says. A year or so later, he started playing guitar, dreaming of being in a band, “I picked up the guitar because of the Beatles.”
Donuts for Dinner’s sets are awash in Beatles, and not just because of Dito. John, Paul, George and Ringo are Melissa Prichard and Shannon Sanchez’s biggest influences, too. In their case, the Beatles were part of their family culture.
“Melissa and I grew up listening to the Beatles, because our parents, especially our dad, loved the Beatles,” Shannon says.
Their late father, Harry Frank, a saxophone and keyboard player, heard the Beatles influence in any good music Shannon and Melissa introduced him to. It’s a musical family. Their brothers are pianists. And the sisters have sung the national anthem, together and solo, at Orioles and Frederick Keys games.
Melissa says her sister nailed the “rockets’ red glare” high notes “like an opera star.” Melissa outsmarted the national anthem by starting it “an octave too low.”
And Mark Bleich? Who is the musical influence that imprinted itself in his DNA?
“I’m going with the Moody Blues,” he says.
It was the ‘70s and both his sister and an older kid up the street were into the band. It rubbed off.
“I was a prog rock fan as opposed to rock,” Mark says. “It hit a chord with me. I was in search of it and the lost chord was there.”
“Are there songs that you hate, but you play anyway because someone in the band likes them?”
Shannon: “Um, yeahhhh. There’s one that Joe loves and I can’t stand. Oh God. Every time it makes it into the set I’m like, ‘Why do we let him do this?’”
It’s the weeper “Don’t let the sun catch you crying,” by 1960s Merseybeat group Gerry and the Pacemakers.
Shannon: “I need a pacemaker when I listen to it.”
Mark: “We have a thousand songs in our book. There were plenty I was skeptical about in the beginning — because maybe I didn’t like the original. But when we play it, it works. When we do some Pearl Jam or, what do they call them, from the ‘90s?”
Mark: “I was never a big fan of those.”
Shannon: “But we don’t sound like those.”
Melissa: “We’ll never sound like Nirvana.”
Mark: “We kind of make it our own and then we like it.”
‘We just all clicked’
The Kentlands Acoustic Jam is a freewheeling gathering of the unplugged that has met twice a month for years in the Gaithersburg neighborhood. That’s where Joe, Mark and Shannon met seven years ago.
“And then we decided to branch out and do our own thing,” Shannon says.
“We were at the jam and I just said to Shannon, ‘Want to do an open mic?’” Joe says. “The [Kentlands] mansion was having an open mic and you could do anything — comedy, read poetry, whatever. I had brought a song that we still do — ‘Of Monsters and Men’ [by the Icelandic quintet Little Talks]. We were practicing and Shannon said, ‘What if Melissa joined us?’ Both of them could sing. And I went, ‘Why not?’
“Mark was a natural to join us. We asked him and he said, ‘Sure.’”
“I was hoping,” Mark says to laughter. “These people could sing, for one thing. And Joe can play guitar well.”
“We just all clicked,” Joe says.
By the summer of 2020, the pandemic seemed like it had gone on in a forever of indistinguishable days. But the initial wave was ebbing and people were starting to peek out from their quarantine.
That’s when Melissa suggested that Donuts for Dinner play a concert on the Prichards’ front porch. One concert turned into three, the band members arranged six feet apart, playing as kids ran on the lawn, and neighbors stopped by to listen.
“Everybody enjoyed seeing live music after being cooped up,” Melissa says. “All of a sudden they had the opportunity to come together to hear music again.”
In comparison, the Sugarloaf show seemed wide open and full of hope.
“It was a great day,” Joe says, “and then, boom.” The weather changed and “the pandemic reemerged and everyone went back to the restrictions again. We couldn’t play outside and the indoor places were so restricted that they stopped playing music altogether.”
Since then they’ve played sporadically, when COVID allows. Sitting with their drinks, days after a couple early winter gigs were canceled, they consider what keeps four busy people getting together and rehearsing and playing.
“What keeps us together is our rapport,” Shannon says. “We have a lot of shared values. We don’t all have the same taste in music, but we’re always willing to try. We are like family. We are family. We’re thick as thieves.”