The Pat McGee Band’s Perpetual Balancing Act
Technically, the Pat McGee Band does not quite fit the standard definition of a jamband, however they do get the label placed on them regularly. This is because the Virginia group is difficult to classify. They exist on a narrow middle ground, with jamming and improvisation on one side and pop and song structure on the other. For the past eight years, they have built their reputation as one of the country’s premiere live acts, by combining heartfelt songs with the flair for improvisation, plus the fearlessness to rip down the walls of structure and go where the music takes them. Their tremendous live energy has garnered them a passionate and devoted fan base, and they tour as hard as any jamband, playing up to300 shows a year.
The band also displays the dexterity to record cohesive albums that can be embraced by mainstream listeners. By contrast with the jamband culture, where tapes of live shows are usually enough to satisfy hungry fans, they managed to sell over 100,000 independent albums, before being signed to Warner Brothers Records in 2000. Since their 2001 major label debut Shine, Pat McGee Band has been performing the extremely difficult balancing act, of recording albums with a pop sensibility, while continuing to deliver the type of live shows that remain rooted in spontaneity. When talking to McGee, it is obvious that he is aware of this, as he rarely mentions his live shows without mentioning the band’s pop oriented albums, and vice-versa. What I find even more daunting is that the group has managed to bring in new mainstream listeners without alienating their fans who were there from the beginning. Which brings back the question of classifying them? According to McGee, "I like to think of us as a modern classic rock band."
The roots of the Pat McGee band stretch back to McGee’s days playing classic rock covers on acoustic guitar. "I really started writing my own songs when I got to college in ’94,"explains McGee. He put out one nine-song solo acoustic album, before starting to put his band together in 1996. It took almost two years for the initial lineup of McGee, John Small (bass), Chris Williams (drums), and Chardy McEwan (percussion) to come together. By 1998, the quartet was touring relentlessly. "By then, we definitely had the jamband’ label put on us," recalls McGee. "It was because we toured as much as any band who was trying to do it at the time. We started getting bunched together with String Cheese Incident, Ekoostic Hookah, and a lot of other bands that are still around. We played all the same clubs in the all the same towns, so that was just natural." Though McGee admits, "We were a little poppier, just because we were more song based, than it was based on the jam thing."
After the release of Shine, the band spent two years supporting some of the jam scene’s biggest acts including, the Allman Brothers Band, Blues Traveler, and the Black Crowes, as well as doing shows with legends Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson. "You know, I’ve always described us as a modern classic rock band. So getting to play with musicians like that was an amazing experience," says McGee. It was the 2002 addition of lead guitarist Brian Fechino, which McGee believes elevated the band to a new level. "We had been friends with Brian for a while, and he had been sitting in with us. So when he came on, it really stepped up the aspect of us being an act that can hold its own with any jamband out there. Now granted," he admits, "Save Me, is definitely on the pop-rock side. But there are a lot of moments that are rooted in very spacious guitars, and it is a lot darker than our former records that were based more on three-part harmonies and acoustic guitar".
The first thing that has allowed McGee to conquer both art forms, is acknowledging that performing live and recording are totally separate entities that need to be approached with different mindsets. "I’m a big believer in that, anything that happens improvisation wise happens on stage. To try to put it down on tape in studio, it’s just hard. It’s hard to get that vibe in a studio." McGee is also frank when looking at the big picture of the business aspect of what the band is looking to accomplish. "For what we’re trying to do, we know what game we’re playing here. We’re signed to Warner Brothers, it’s not some small indie label, that’s like all about us putting out our little record where every song is seven minutes long." McGee is also quick to point out, "I mean it’s not like we’re catering to Warner Brothers, they’ve never said a word about it. I mean, I love the jam stuff, but I also love Squeeze and the Beatles, the songwriter stuff, where in three and half minutes you can get a great melody down, and then when you go live you can improvise. We still have plenty of songs like Runaway,’ Passion,’ and Rebecca,’ that are always over ten minutes long when played live." McGee further explains; "Pretty much anytime the band gets their hands on a song that’s recorded one way, but by the time it gets to the listeners ears in the live setting, we’ve probably stretched it out twice as long. When you’re playing that many shows a year, you have to keep changing, just to keep it fresh."
While McGee believes the structured song serves as a blue print for where the band can go in the live setting, the band worked somewhat in reverse in creating their new album. The eleven songs that make up Save Me were created while touring over the last two years, and all have been road tested. "We specifically didn’t stretch the new stuff out live until we got the record in people’s hands. So any live tape that someone might have over the last two years of us playing new songs is really true to how it sounds on record, with the exception of a guitar solo that might be a little extended. For the most part I’m more proud of this record then any other." The road testing of songs paid dividends right away. "The fact that we were able to get immediate reactions from fans really helped. We were able to see what worked and what didn’t." When I caught the band in New York’s Bowery Ballroom, I was amazed by the fact that everyone in the crowd knew the words to almost every song on the new album, which had only been released the previous day.
McGee admits to the "jamband syndrome" in past recording difficulties. "We’ve been a band whose records were never as good as our live show. I think that’s very hard to do in the jamband world. It’s like no one ever says, I’d rather listen to a Grateful Dead album, than go see them live.’ It’s always the other way around." McGee believes that Save Me is a turnaround for the band. "For once, we’ve made a record where I happen to feel, we have to live up to when playing live. Which is a challenge. It’s a challenge for me vocally; it’s really a big stretch. The singing on this record is more challenging then anything I’ve done in the past." Having a record of this caliber brings a new dynamic to their live performances according to McGee. "It makes everything about the show new. There’s a new tension and intensity to our live shows that was never there before."
The second thing that has allowed McGee to pull off his balancing act is his strong songwriting. "With albums, it pushes me harder as a writer. If people aren’t going to get the live energy and the extended stuff of the live show, then the songs better be as good as anything you’ve ever done. So that’s got to be something people can hang there hats on and say, I can’t wait to hear that song live." Which begs asking does McGee view himself as more of a player, or a songwriter? "Definitely a player; actually this is the first album where I actually view myself as a lead singer, because most of our previous stuff was based on three-part harmonies. He continues, "I actually wish, I was more of a songwriter. Of course, I write the songs, but I wish I wrote more. I’m the kind of guy, who sits down and writes a batch of songs, and not the type that is always writing." Although, McGee is becoming more spontaneous in his writing, one example of this is the new song Don’t Give Up.’ It came to him while onstage playing the fan favorite Rebecca.’ "The whole thing just popped in to my head," he explains. "As soon as I got off stage, I called my answering machine and sang the melody into it so I wouldn’t forget."
One of the problems that has haunted jambands such as Dave Mathews Band, Blues Traveler, Rusted Root and the Spin Doctors, is when they gained crossover success, it turned off their original fans. This has not seemed to plague the Pat McGee Band. "Obviously our fans are our lifeline. Luckily they have stuck with us for so long. We do have a lot of people who travel with us. This is one of the reasons people outside the jamband world call us a jamband. While in the jamband world we’re too much of a pop-rock act." To solve this dilemma McGee says, "I definitely invite anyone who hasn’t seen the band to check us out. Come out to our shows, or we have this thing on I-Tunes. It’s a five-song EP. Four of the songs are live from Boston, There is some pretty cool stuff on there, that shows we’re definitely rooted in that type of music." The EP is a tool McGee believes will appeal to fans, both old and new. "It’s cool because that’s not the type of thing you would send to the head of a record label. You wouldn’t say, Check out this ten-minute version of Runaway,’ with this crazy percussion breakdown, and winding guitar solo.’ That is something for the fans and not the label." As far as his long time fans are concerned, "There’s been very little complaining about our direction, and us not being around enough. We’ve gotten lots of support for the new record, even though it took longer to get it out, but so far everything has been positive.
Dave Mathews Band has been the jamband to enjoy the greatest crossover success. Coincidently, both Dave Mathews Band and Pat McGee Band hail from Virginia. I asked McGee about the Virginia scene and the type of multifaceted bands it produces. "Virginia has so much going on. You got Richmond, the Charlottesville scene, and all the colleges that are stretched out over eight hours of driving. I grew up in northern Virginia, in the DC area, but I decided to go to Richmond, because it was a smaller scene, and more accessible to getting a fan base started." The decision to move to Richmond proved correct. "We had this thing going where every Thursday, we played the same bar in Richmond, that was like the best gig ever, there would be 650 people there every week. Then on Wednesday we’d play Charlottesville, which is kind of like a mini San Francisco. It’s a real hip town, where people are very supportive of artists. Obviously Dave Mathews came from there, but there are so many people you’ve never heard of doing really cool stuff there." McGee is quick to heap praise on other bands to come out of Virginia. "There are so many amazing bands from that scene. Gibb Droll, Everything, Fighting Gravity, Dave Mathews was still around when I was first starting out, you have Bruce Hornsby in Williamsburg, and of course Agents of Good Roots, which is one of my favorite bands of all time." McGee admits however, "I kind of fell out of touch with the Virginia scene. I moved out of Virginia, and now it seems like a lot of other bands are moving out, just because, well especially in Richmond, it’s not as supportive of original music the way it used to be. Now we only play Richmond twice a year."
A lot has changed since those days in Virginia. Pat McGee Band seems to be on the cusp of stardom. All the pieces seem to be in place: strong songs, a healthy fan base, a supportive record label, and devotion to touring. If stardom does hit, it will be interesting to see if McGee and company can maintain their balancing act. Will the pressures of mainstream success tip the scales permanently toward the pop side? Or, can they join the few jam-oriented bands that managed to master both recording and performing? Though they have held their balance this long, it appears that their greatest challenges (and possibly their biggest success), lay ahead, along the narrow road they endlessly travel.