It was immediately obvious that the band, and the audience, had grown up together. As proof of that, my oldest daughter, Christie, now thirty-six, and her husband, joined me at The Birchmere. The band members have matured into husbands and fathers. For many in the crowd, my daughter included, it was a reunion of sorts, not just with the band, but also with old friends.
It represented the best of what music offers us; joy, memory, context, connection, the chance to visit places of the heart we hold sacred. It stamps our ticket, giving us passage through the turbulent times, and, hopefully, travelling mercies to a better shore. It doesn’t matter whether the music in question is socially significant, intellectually provoking, personally empowering, or if it is simply a gateway to a better moment we need to hold onto in the storm. Sometimes it isn’t about the higher merits of art but more about personal validation, marking a place in our timeline we must not surrender.
McGee opened the evening by joking with the crowd. “A lot of people that have opened for me over the years have gone on to play stadiums…so tonight I thought I would open for myself.” He then proceeded to play “Kite String,” from his soon-to-be-released studio album recorded in Los Angeles, with the legendary session men known as The Section. From there, the six song opening set featured Jonathan Williams playing some gorgeous country songs from his new solo album.
Then, the full band took the stage and proceeded to give the audience what they wanted, a highlight reel of PMB’s two decades in the music business. Based in Virginia, McGee has sold over 300,000 albums, no small feat. That is due, in large part, to McGee’s tireless hard work and near constant touring over that span. And when the band is ready to jam, they can deliver a good time. This Friday night there were a few surprises in store for the crowd.
Early into the evening McGee brought out the first special guest, Bobby Read, sax man for Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers, and throughout the night Read engaged in sax-guitar duels with Brian Fechino. Just a few songs later, McGee explained to the Birchmere faithful that he had had the honor of entertaining the troops. He told of landing on an aircraft carrier, and of speaking with the ship’s commander, who related to McGee his love for Van Halen and AC/DC. And at that moment he introduced Commander Daryle Cardone, USN.
Next up was “Straight Curve,” which segued into the Allman Brother’s “One Way Out,” and featured the dual guitars of Newell and Fechino, playing against the insistent sax of Bobby Read. From this point the band launched into a three song mini-set of Paul Simon songs, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” “Cecilia,” before ending with “Graceland.” And there were still a few more guests in the wings.
The show closed with “Passion,” McGee’s angsty reply to a music critic. The song stretched into a full band jam, this time showcasing the strengths of John Small on bass. Small, a force of nature on the frets, provided the heavy bottom end that nailed the band to the floor whenever they might fly away.
They came back for a one song encore, “Rebecca,” a perennial crowd pleaser. Seated to my left at the table were a family of four; father, mother, and two sons, who looked to be about age eight and ten. McGee called the boys up on stage and sent them to the percussionist Chardy McEwan, where they took turns pounding the congas. Moments later McGee asked their father to join them, and quieted the band to give them a brief solo. The rousing finish was followed by the all too familiar announcement that McGee would be out in the lobby to hang with the ticketholders. Fortunately some things never change.