By Jeanne' McCartin
features@seacoastonline.com

He may not be one of those seasoned musicians a half century in the trenches, but freelancer PJ Donahue’s sticks have played lots of beats. Ten years sitting in with scores of bands have not only made him a sought after musician, but privy to plenty. His path has given this young man a head start on skill and on a music-man’s rocking-chair anthologies, as teller, and told of.

"It’s hard to remember all the stories. … But there’s been some good ones," says Donahue. "I’ve taken my wife to some shows, and when she gets in the car after, she says to me, ‘we don’t need the money that bad.’ That’s a wake-up call."

Top on the charts was the southern tour he did with the Scharff Brothers. One of their gigs in Florida - unbeknownst to all till they arrived - was a kid’s Halloween party.

"We had no idea," he says laughing. "We ended up playing a march … and doing the big drum roll thing for their costume contest."

Then there was that show in Portland, Maine, with a seven-piece band, and a single guy in the audience throughout the entire show.

"He was reading the whole time," he says.

One of his favorites - in a twisted sort of way - occurred early on in his career, when the Durham native, now of Newmarket, was a member of Brickhouse. His band landed the opening gig at the Casino for Maceo Parker, James Brown’s sax player. To say Donahue was psyched is an understatement.

But the night of the show he was sick. Real sick. He played his set. And it went well. He even stayed on for some of Parker’s performance. But eventually he headed home early. His girlfriend, now his wife, Jenn Donahue, stayed with friends to watch the rest of the show.

She did little to buoy his wounded spirits when she arrived home that night. Seems shortly after Donahue left the band invited her onstage to dance, then backstage to meet Parker. Salt to the wound - she and friends were invited to hang in the band’s bus, "while I was back at her place – sick," he laments. – But it remains a fond memory.

Then there was that unforgettable show with Chewy. The gig was at a bar that had its big-screen TV set up behind the band.

"I remember we were getting all pumped up when (the audience) kept cheering," he says. "It took a while for us to figure out, it was because the Red Sox hit a home run."

Another favorite tale falls into the "you had to be there" category; a visual thing, near impossible to describe. Suffice it to say the lead of this one band liked rolling around on the stage. "(All I could think was ‘get me out of here!’)" Donahue tends to be busy the nights they call.

Then there’s the-one-that-got-away. It was a birthday party for a dog. He’d have done it, but he honestly was booked for another show.

The tale-telling goes two ways with Donahue. Adam Scharff, of the Scharff Brothers and the defunct Radio Junkies, has a few on the drummer. His fav occurred shortly after meeting him, when Donahue accompanied the band on an Ohio tour. He and Scharff shared a hotel room.

"Remember, we’d only had two rehearsals. We didn’t know each other very well. We’d hardly talked," says Scharff. "I’m doing my push-ups and I say ‘PJ get up. It’s 9:30. We’ve got to get going.’ He says ‘Did you cook up my heroin yet?’ "I said, "Oh, sorry, I forgot to."

To which Donahue responds with a list of expletives, then a laugh. It’s funny after you’re sure he’s joking, says Scharff, "but we’d barely spoken at that time." Today the two are best friends.

Most of Donahue’s favorite tales are of greater interest to folks in the trade. They’re the conversations with other artists about the music and business, or around approaches to the work, or the passion for their art.

The other side-stories might spice up the day. But it’s all about the music for Donahue. It’s why he chose to be a hired drum. And why he’s kept a busy man.

"We’ve used him in full-out rock, percussion as an acoustic trio, and unplugged in-house party situations," says Scharff. "His big passion is jazz, so he’s got a good sense of odd-time signatures and a good sort of askew prospective coming from the jazz head. It gives him a different perspective on how to approach rock or acoustic, whatever.

"He is the quintessential professional and on top of that a great guy. It’s a privilege to know him."

When Todd Royce is asked about Donahue’s skill, he responds with, "ready for the litany?

"He’s fabulous … incredible enthusiastic about all styles and genres, and schooled."

If you ask him for a Rambo, he asks which one, and for a shuffle it’s "from what part of the country," says Royce. He’s simply top-notch.

Donahue is or has worked with The Amorphous Band, Todd Royce Band, Steve Roy Trio and Cruik Shank Band. There’s Concord’s Freese Brother Big Band, Ron Noyes, Day Janeiro and Craig Fahey Trio, and more. Currently Donahue and Royce play a side thing as the wedding band, Funky Town.

There’s also a new group MacTough, with friends, Jim DozetteX and Roland Nicol. It’s an outlet for his funk and jazz love, he says.

Donahue started music at 13. He performed his first gig in the high school cafeteria, with the Four Corners Band, which later became Brickhouse.

Near the tale-end of the latter band’s run he stared meeting up and playing with other musicians and a freelance career was born.

It was the late ’90s. The scene had died down. Being tied to one band meant limited playing time, "and I wanted to play as much as possible," he says. As drummer-for-hire he averages five or six shows a week, and often seven.

"The focus here is to make money as the musician … and be the best musician I can be. Freelancing helps that, all the practicing out," he says.

Stardom – it’s not in the picture. He doesn’t care. Donahue doesn’t even think of leaving the area unless it’s to tour.

"I just focus all my energy on playing, practicing and teaching. And that’s worked out."

Drum-for-hire does have downsides. When called to work for an original-material band, it can mean picking up tunes in a matter of days. Even cover bands can be tricky.

"With the big bands, like 20 or 25, with lots of horns and jazz, the difficulty is you’re thrown charts and have to learn it pretty much on the bandstand," he says. "But it’s usually a blast. And you get ideas just by playing with someone new. It’s exciting and inspiring most the time."

And no doubt about it, the money is generally better – which is the point. It keeps him at his art.

"Sometimes it’s just for the music, $30 and dinner. But it’s because I’m really, really excited about the players. It’s kind of the standard I’ve set for taking the gig: it pays really well, or it’s rewarding musically," he says. "And sometimes you get both, and that makes it all worth it."

You can catch Donahue at both, performing with one of his favorite bands Amorphous, at the Redhook Brewery on Sept. 4.

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