Thursday, November 02, 2006

Pat McGee Band

In discussing the death of Chris Williams earlier this week, I mentioned how much Pat McGee Band had an effect on me in my college years, and since that was actually the first time I’d mentioned them on this blog (to this point, I’ve written about My Morning Jacket more than PMB, and I only got into MMJ a month ago), I figured now would be a good time to delve into just how PMB has had said effect. It’s all about timing, really...well, that and quality music.

In August 1999, the first day of my junior year at Mizzou, my new roommate (one-time Good Nonsense poster Hear No Evil, who had introduced me to concert trading/downloading that summer...between the two of us, we would end up collecting somewhere around 200 Dave Matthews Band shows and 150 Pat McGee Band shows) and I were talked into going to see a show at the Blue Note by an incoming freshman and friend of Hear No Evil’s. She’d heard of Richmond, VA’s Pat McGee Band through a friend of a friend, and after a quick visit to their website for a sample of their music, we figured, Why not. Not like anybody had any homework. So we went to the Blue Note, us and about twenty other people total. The crowd was thin enough that they brought each female in the audience to sit onstage for a song. After the show, we went backstage and they invited us to hang out on the bus for a while. They put us on the guest list for the next night’s show in St. Louis. That was all it took...we were hooked. We started tell all of our friends about them, downloading shows of theirs and playing them all day for everybody in the dorm...whether they liked it or not.

A lot of them liked it, though (as I search through the MySpace profiles of my fellow dormmates, I see a lot of people listing PMB among their favorite bands even today). PMB has always had a sound that is hard to dislike. You might not like it all that much, but there’s really no way to dislike. The PMB of 1999-2001 had a nice acoustic rock sound, 3-part harmonies, and lots of personality. They were unique, and they had built an impressive fanbase along the east coast.

So April 2000 rolls around. PMB is releasing their first major-label album, Shine, and they’re having an album release party at Trax in Charlottesville. Hear No Evil and I are both veterans of stupid road trips (That entire year, we had a mileage race between his Saturn and my Nissan truck. Dorks, you say? Yes, yes indeed.), so it takes us about three seconds for “We should go to that show” to go from joke to reality. We enlist a couple of other friends for the weekend trip, and off we go. We see shows in Emmitsburg, MD, and Farmville, VA. We drive through ten straight hours of rain. We hang out with the band at a frat party. We eat at a diner in the middle of the night with PMB and Howie Day. We meet a bunch of people from the Identity listserv in which we’d been participants since the previous August. We get a request played onstage at Trax. We write a trip diary that ends up being read by seemingly everyone we’ve ever known. The band now knows us because we’re the idiots, I mean, great fans who traveled further than just about anybody ever has to see them play.

Something else that happens on that trip is, at the Farmville frat party, Pat and I discuss music on some ratty sofa for about an hour or so. I talk about how HNE and I were going to start playing at an open mic in Columbia and I had started toying around with lyrics and song structures (to impress a girl, of course). I asked if he had any advice for me. Looking back, all I can remember him saying is something generic like “You gotta write what you believe” or “Write from the heart” or something (what else can you say to that question?), but it was all the affirmation I needed. So I got started writing the moment we got home.

Two weeks after the Virginia trip, I went to Chicago to visit friends and see PMB at House of Blues. We hung out at a bar after the show...everybody remembered me...more affirmation. Chardy the percussionist talked to me for a long while, and I got on the guest list for basically every show in the Summer of 2000 (I was working in DC, which is much closer to PMB’s home base) and got to know the guys really well. I hung out with Chardy in Dewey Beach, DE, and Baltimore; I hung out with Chris in Ortley Beach, NJ; I hung out with Pat in Richmond. When I got back to Mizzou, we had a party for them at our place when they played the Blue Note again in late-August. I went to DC for Christmas and saw them four times in four nights. Then, in the Summer of 2001 (after another April road trip), it was more of the same. And in early September of that year, they asked me to draw up the setlist for their show at the Blue Note, swearing that I was the first fan they’d ever asked to do this (I didn’t really believe that, but when I saw them three years later, Chardy introduced me to someone by saying I was the only non-band member to draw up a setlist, so...well, I guess I believe him...should I put this on my résumé?). They invited HNE and I out to San Diego the next weekend to hang out with them at the Street Scene Festival, where we would have gotten to meet bands like Counting Crows, and we came VERY close to going, but we just didn’t have the money. And thank god we didn’t, as we would have been flying home from LAX on September 11, 2001.

During all this traveling, PMB was seemingly continuing to gain momentum as a major-label band. They’d become pretty well-regarded for selling 100,000 copies of their first few albums independent of any record label. They were known for putting on a great live show and developing and growing quite close to a hardcore following (of which I was obviously a very vocal member). Shine’s first single, “Runaway,” didn’t make a lot of noise, but their second single and signature song, “Rebecca,” reached #7 on the Adult Alternative charts. It was a start. However, their label (Giant Records, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers) went under, and PMB were incorporated into WB’s large lineup of artists.

I haven’t ever had any extensive conversation with anybody from the band about this, but from a relative outsider’s perspective, it looked like they were more or less forgotten by Warner Brothers. When rhythm guitarist Al Walsh quit the band in January 2001 and was replaced by accomplished lead Brian Fechino, they thought about re-recording “Hero” (which had improved tenfold with the addition of Fechino...just a great all-around rock song) from Shine and releasing it as the next single, but the label decided to just have them record a new album. By 2002, as I was once again following them up and down the East Coast (and going to a Dave Matthews show in Virginia Beach with Chardy), they had recorded some demos and laid down some album tracks, and WB continued to push them to the sidelines time and again.

It wasn’t until 2004 that their follow-up album, Save Me, was released. It was a departure from Shine...there were two electric guitars in every song as opposed to the more acoustic, folky sound of Shine and all its predecessors, there were two new band members, there was little harmony, and there seemed to be a pretty concerted effort to secure a radio hit. Can you blame them? Once upon a time, performers like Vertical Horizon, Train, Howie Day, Five for Fighting, and others had all opened for PMB, and all of them had since scored major radio play and moved up on the pecking order of their various labels. For PMB, it just wasn’t meant to be with WB.

Save Me was dated when it was released (there was a line about 9/11, “We’ve seen the falls,” in one was written a few months after 9/11 but wasn’t released until almost three years later), the hardcore promotion that WB had promised just wasn’t there, and the effort at radio-friendly songs was for naught. The first single, “Beautiful Ways,” tanked, and they were quickly no longer a part of the Warner Brothers roster. Kirtland Records picked them up and re-released Save Me in Summer 2005, but the first single from the re-release, “Must Have Been Love,” didn’t do too much either. Plus, having four years elapse between releases was just death for a mid-level band. Their upward momentum had totally stalled. In 2002, they were selling out Wolf Trap, a 7,000-seat venue outside DC. In 2005, they were opening for Hanson. While that’s not as bad as it sounds—Hanson has developed a hardcore following of their own and have been playing legit, non-“Mmm Bop” music for almost a decade—but it was quite obviously a step backward.

The last time I talked to Chris Williams was in October 2004, which was the last time PMB played at the Blue Note. They were opening for Better Than Ezra. BTE is the typical college bar band. They’d gotten quite a few songs on the radio (I was shocked at how many songs of theirs I recognized), and they’d carved a niche out of playing in venues about the Blue Note’s size (900-1100 capacity, I think). Chris talked about how they were really excited to be opening for BTE, and they were learning a lot from them. He knew that this was the niche they were aiming for—they weren’t going to be selling out amphitheatres, and they weren’t going to be changing the world—but they were going to continue making fans happy. I mean, I can talk about their stalled momentum all I want, but they were still getting paid to make music and travel the country, and they still had a legion of hardcore followers on their side...there are worse things in life, to be sure. However, of the six original PMB members, three (Al Walsh, Jonathan Williams, John Small) had left by this point, and another left in late 2005 (Todd Wright, Jonathan’s replacement at keys, left and was replaced by...Jonathan).

2006 offered more challenges. Chris injured his arm and had missed quite a bit of time over the summer and fall. However, on Chris’
myspace blog last Sunday, he posted that he had recovered and was ready to get back out on the road again with the band. He was getting back into the flow of things, the band had been working on some new material, and things were looking pretty good. Life was getting back to normal. And then whatever it was that happened last weekend, happened. We still don’t know, and honestly, it still doesn’t really matter. No matter what, he’s gone.

I guess I should go ahead and end this with some lyrics from PMB's "Shine." It's pretty easy to be too cheesy in your use of lyrics to describe a situation, but in this case I think it's okay because a) Pat has really written two of the best death/dedication songs ever in "Shine" and "Eligy for Amy," and b) this further shows how this band has touched as many people as they have (albeit mostly under the radar).

I hear you walkin' 'round this house somtimes
Wish you hadn't chose to cross that line
Now you walk among
The famous ones
You're the angels' son
And now you're gone
But you chose to shine
Sorry, but you know we're far from fine

So many fans were touched by those lyrics, and now so many of them are giving them back to Pat and the band.

Meanwhile, it has been over 6.5 years since the night I talked to Pat about writing lyrics and music on a sofa in the Sig Ep party overflow house. My musical tastes have sort of moved on beyond PMB. That’s not to say I don’t still love and appreciate their music. I do. But I don’t live and breathe PMB anymore. While I’ve been wanting to see them live for a while, my priorities have changed to the point where even a mid-week trip to Lawrence or St. Louis (especially for an opening gig with Hanson) seemed like a bit much...which is something coming from the king of “Wanna drive 15 hours for a concert, then turn around and come home?”. I have continued to write since then, slowly but surely getting stuff recorded in the midst of holding down a job and starting a family (and a blog). While it’s taken me almost as long to record this as it’s taken Axl Rose to put out Chinese Democracy, writing, singing, and recording continue to be a rewarding pastime, and I have Pat McGee Band to thank for that. I don’t know what the future holds for them (I assume the show must go on, and I assume Chris would want it that way), but I wish them the best.