Perpetual Groove: You Can Go Home Again

By: Eric Bell

A new era of Perpetual Groove begins on Friday, November 18th, at the legendary Georgia Theater in Athens, as keyboardist Matt McDonald rejoins the band, after a 3 1/2 year hiatus. Read the band’s official statement about the lineup change here.

Perpetual Groove
In the world of Perpetual Groove, this is about as good as it gets: On Friday evening, the band will walk onstage at its beloved hometown venue, The Georgia Theater, for the first time in over two years. It will do so featuring the definitive line-up of Brock Butler (Guitar), Matt McDonald (Keyboards), Adam Perry (Bass) and Albert Suttle (Drums) for the first time in over 3 years.

For those who don’t know, The Theater, as it’s called by folks in and around the Southeast, was tragically burned down in 2009. However, it was painstakingly rebuilt, revamped and revitalized in ways hardly imaginable before, and stands, once again, as a testament to the legendary music scene in Athens, Georgia.

The famous American novelist Thomas Wolfe is known for coining the enduring cultural aphorism, “You can’t go home again.” This phrase comes from the finale of the novel when protagonist George Webber realizes, "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood...back home to a young man's dreams of glory, and of fame...back home to places in the country, and to old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting, but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."

My guess is that on Friday evening, the guys in Perpetual Groove may have something to say about that. Not only do they return to the physical confines of The Theater, but also to a metaphysical space. A space filled with dreams and glory, a space that - to this author - once seemed everlasting...and a space thought long gone — a space featuring the one and only Matt McDonald on keyboards. So for one night and one night alone, PGroove and its ardent fanbase, get to go home again. If I know anything about this band, it’s that everything afterward will about moving forward and likely in ways you couldn’t possibly begin to imagine.

A Conversation with Matt McDonald and Albert Suttle

Eric Bell: This must all, at some level, feel kinda strange for you in that, well, you were a very public figure for awhile, but I imagine the last couple of years has been pretty quiet in that respect. Now, all of a sudden, you're transitioning yourself back into the limelight.

Matt McDonald: Well it’s been incredibly private, but not very quiet. I’ve done lots and lots of session work, and I also have been working in the medical field. [My wife] Kelly and I had a son 14 months ago. I have two older kids as well, but Kelly and I now have a baby and a mortgage like everyone else. So, I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as quiet (laugh), but most definitely private.

Eric Bell:What kind of session work have you been doing?

Matt McDonald: I was fortunate enough to do a couple of big country albums from artists that came through [Athens], and I’ve also been playing at the Athens Country Club pretty regularly. You know, keeping my jazz piano chops in shape. I’ve been able to play an awful lot, but yeah, I haven’t been in the public eye much, and my opinion has definitely changed [from where they were 3 1/2 years ago].

Eric Bell: How so?

Matt McDonald: There are enough things in the world right now that are divisive and have a tendency to alienate people. I don’t want to add to that in any way, shape or form. The political climate during the latter part of my previous tenure was a lot more volatile, and I probably would have been better served if I had not voiced my opinion as much. I definitely won't be doing that in the future.

Eric Bell: So Albert, what's this transition period going to look like? Can you give me an idea of how things are going to play out? I'm sure the fans will be asking a lot of questions. Maybe we clear up any misconceptions ahead of time.

Albert Suttle: We’ve got a few more shows with John [Hruby] after The Theater gig, and then he’ll move on. New Year’s will be with both John and Matt on keys. They’ll be switching out, and sometimes they’ll be playing together, too, but after [New Year’s] we’ll make the full transition over to Matt. And it’s all going to happen pretty fast.

Eric Bell: Yeah, you're not kidding. How have the rehearsals been going Matt? It sounds like you've got a lot of ground to cover over the next month or so. Are you getting up to speed on the newer material?

Matt McDonald: Rehearsals have been going extremely well. The guys sent me all the new material that’s been written since my departure, and I’ve been working mostly on that. Obviously, I’m brushing up on some of the old tunes as well, but fortunately those have been kind of like riding a bike... You know, once I play through them a couple of times it all comes back. Brock came up here and spent the past weekend with Kelly and me. We restructured all the vocals because John and I have very different ranges. I have a much lower voice than he does, so essentially [Brock and I] are switching parts.

Eric Bell: Matt, you mentioned to me earlier that this shouldn’t be viewed by the fans, or anyone else for that matter, as a return to a specific lineup or sound. Can you expand on that some?

Matt McDonald: Sure. It's important to understand that while the players might be the same [as a previous era], we’ve all evolved - as musicians, as friends, as partners and just as people [in general]. You’re going to see me take the lead on some of the vocals. We are already talking about writing new material, because all of us have a bunch of stuff we’ve been sitting on. Once Jam Cruise ends, we are going to setup a guitar rig on my side of the stage as well. This will take some people by surprise, but it's going to open a lot of doors for us. I'm really excited about it because we will be able to write and execute completely different material.

Eric Bell: Wow. That’s really exciting news. It’s refreshing to hear you talk in those terms. I knew there was no way you guys were going to approach this era as - for lack of a better word - a recital band, you know, traveling around the country and playing the same old tunes and whatnot. That’s a whole different level risk-taking than even I had in mind. Bravo. In my book, that's what it's all about.

Matt McDonald: This is something we’ve been talking about for a while. There was a period when we were talking about doing something together under a different name, and making it kind of a two guitar band. Things have morphed and changed quite a bit since then, but we still think it’s a great idea. So why not do it in the context of Perpetual Groove? I was a guitar major in college, and fortunately, I’ve kept my [guitar] chops in pretty good shape. I think you’re going to see a lot of different things coming from the band. This is going to be an evolution, as all things in life should be.

Eric Bell: Sounds like you're feeling pretty good about your guitar chops. It's good to know you weren’t just sitting around twiddling your thumbs these past few years.

Matt McDonald: Yeah, well, except when I'm playing Halo with Albert, because that definitely qualifies as sitting around twiddling my thumbs [laughs].

Albert Suttle: Yeah, it happens [laughs].

Matt McDonald: You definitely don’t want to look too closely at our Xbox live accounts, because you’ll see far too many hours logged into video games.

Eric Bell: Outside of the new guitar rig on stage, what’s your keyboard situation going to look like? Are you using the same rig as before?

Matt McDonald: No, I have a much smaller rig now. Basically, I’m just using Main Stage [off of my computer]. However, I’m going to be acquiring some new gear over the next couple of weeks. It’s kind of the secret machine in my arsenal. So, I’m going to reacquire that piece of gear and start programming on that immediately. Also, [PGroove] owns a Moog Voyager that I will be using onstage. It’s been at my house for about a week now. Actually, I’ve been on the phone with the Moog guys a lot the past few days, and they’ve been overwhelmingly generous with their time. They’ve been helping me update the Voyager’s software so that it’s healthy and ready to go.

Eric Bell: What about an organ? That’s definitely one of your signature sounds, at least as far as my ears are concerned.

Matt McDonald: It’s going to be a couple of months before I incorporate an organ into my stage rig again. That’s not to say that I won’t be using organ sounds, but my keyboard rig is much more compact than it used to be. I’ve been using Main Stage for about two years now, and it’s actually a much nicer way to go.

Eric Bell: Let’s close with some thoughts on this Friday's gig at The Georgia Theater. I know it's a special venue for you guys, and so I'd love to just hear you talk about it generally. Also, what can the fans expect in the way of surprise, like special tunes coming off the shelf and whatnot?

Albert Suttle: It's going to be a great crowd, just in terms of the energy, and so we're expecting to have a really good time. At this point, we've talked our way through most of the important 'pre-game' issues like the setlist selections and who's going to play on what tunes. We're also planning to do a special cover tune to commemorate the occasion. The rumor about [Matt's return] is starting to slip out a little bit, and there's definitely some added fervor because of it. At the end of the day, we're just trying to do what's best for the fans, and as Matt alluded to earlier, we are really looking at this as an evolution, in every sense of the word.

Matt McDonald: To answer your question about old songs coming off the shelf and whatnot, you can expect to see a lot more of that once the official transition with John Hruby takes place at the upcoming New Year's show. John and I will be onstage together a good bit [at The Theater], not only because we enjoy it, but also because we want to present a clear message [to the fans]. This is an amicable transition, a passing of the torch if you will, and the song selections were made to reinforce those sentiments. The Georgia Theater is our home away from home. Perpetual Groove was scheduled to perform there on the same day it burned down. We had plans to play together then, but we ended up at the Classic Center instead. So as far as old songs coming back, we're going to put that in our pocket until the New Year’s show because it seems more appropriate. This Friday will be more of a celebration of being back at The Theater, and of embracing change. We just want to put on a good party for everyone to throw down, and you know, have a good time, and we want the audience to participate in that as much as possible.

Eric M. Bell is a music journalist and jazz guitarist. His blog, Fukuoka Policeman, takes a new turn on the traditional music interview, substituting the art and science of the craft for its usual celebrity. Mr. Bell’s influences have been many Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, Miles Davis and Trey Anastasio and, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol. Besides working as a principal in an investment banking firm, his other interests include contemporary art, existential philosophy, US National Parks, Fellini films, and hiking in Colorado’s High Country. He is a native Texan and lives in San Antonio.

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[Published on: 11/18/11]

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