Not just another band: Pat McGee on the Trax days and Dave comparisons

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Pat McGee led his band from Wednesday nights at Trax to national recognition in the ’90s before breaking up. He reunites with the remaining original members at the Southern on February 7. Publicity photo. Pat McGee led his band from Wednesday nights at Trax to national recognition in the ’90s before breaking up. He reunites with the remaining original members at the Southern on February 7. Publicity photo.

For those yearning for the days of yore, when C’ville was an unknown but up-and-coming music town, yearn no further than February 7 at The Southern Café and Music Hall. That’s the night Pat McGee will reconvene his band in Charlottesville for the first time since the venerable Trax nightclub was torn down in 2002.

No, the Pat McGee Band’s last gig in Charlottesville wasn’t at Trax—that would be too perfect—but the venue is seriously significant in the winding story of PMB. The band played a regular Wednesday night show there throughout the late ’90s, following in the footsteps of Dave Matthews Band, which held down Tuesday nights at Trax in ’92-’93.

McGee said Trax is the venue where he learned to be a musician, as well as where he learned to be a professional, in no small part thanks to the club’s manager Dana Murphy. It’s the stage from which McGee, guitarist Al Walsh, keyboardist Jonathan Williams, bassist John Small, percussionist Chardy McEwan and drummer Chris Williams catapulted themselves into a national touring act that found its way onto radio stations across the nation.

“The place was the perfect mix of professional rock club slash listening room. We played there before I even knew what a listening room was, with people actually listening to the band,” McGee said in a recent phone interview. “Having a house gig at a place like Trax, it was like the greatest way to shape our sound and what we wanted to be.”

The Trax shows, which drew sit-ins from the likes of Agents of Good Roots, Egypt and DMB members Carter Beauford and LeRoi Moore, eventually became a financial success, as did PMB’s regular gigs in Richmond and beyond. A major label signing with Warner Brothers subsidiary Giant Records and hit singles followed.

Tragedy struck in 2006, when Chris Williams died suddenly. The band had already had some hard times, with founding members coming and going, and the untimely death of the rhythm section’s centerpiece was the final blow.

McGee immediately went to a different place musically, writing songs for himself, rather than for a band that had seemingly slipped through his fingers.

“In the Pat McGee Band days, I was writing material and thinking, ‘it will be amazing when we put the harmonies on this, and John Small can go off on bass, and the drums will be great here,’” McGee said. “When I started doing solo stuff, I just wrote for the sake of the song.”

Three years ago, McGee had the itch to get the original lineup back together. With Matt Calvarese taking over for Chris Williams on drums and multi-instrumentalist Michael Ghegan joining in, Pat McGee Band played its first reunion show in Alexandria, Virginia. It was to be a one-time thing. It became more. The band is now playing its third annual gig in Northern Virginia, and two other shows were added this year—a Richmond stop is scheduled along with Charlottesville.

The shows are intended to be as close to a late-’90s PMB concert as you can get, McGee said, with the band drawing only on its first four studio albums, the records on which the original lineup was together and developing its sound. McGee promises the band’s “chops are still up to snuff,” which stands to reason given they’re all still professional musicians.

“We are definitely focused on trying to recreate that sound,” McGee said. “It’s not hard. I think we’ve had two rehearsals ever, and they didn’t go very well. We’re not a rehearsing kind of band. Whatever happens, happens. That’s how our sound was created: live on stage.”

McGee said the band has kicked around the idea of recording a few new tracks, but PMB is not back together. It’s just a semi-
annual reunion that’ll go on as long as the guys enjoy it. It’s something of an odd choice, as McGee has never experienced the kind of commercial success as a solo act that he did with the band. It probably has something to do with the fact that PMB has forever been compared to DMB, a comparison McGee thinks is unfair and based solely on the coincidence of the names and the fact that both bands hail from Virginia.

Mostly though, McGee seems content with the tunes he’s writing these days. The record he’ll release in early April is loaded with legendary backing talent to go along with McGee’s easygoing, honest songwriting. The only trouble for the album, given that McGee isn’t willing to go on the road as much as in his heyday, will be finding the right audience.

“I feel like it’s 1994, and I’m walking dorm room to dorm room trying to get people to listen,” McGee said.

That’s a feeling a lot of people around here would likely enjoy going back to.

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