Holiday homecoming

Thanksgiving is a time for family, friends and celebration. And that’s exactly what Acoustic Syndicate’s annual homecoming show is all about. As much for the fans as for the band, the yearly performance is a chance to catch the group—known for mixing bluegrass, Americana, jam and country—in their element, with an extended set, eclectic guests and a lot of sincerity.

Return of the Syndicate? Since announcing that the band would be on an indefinite hiatus in 2005, the members of former Sugar Hill Recording artists Acoustic Syndicate have moved on with their lives. But with an upcoming reunion performance and rumblings of a new recording, is there a chance that they’ll be leaving their day jobs behind for a second time?

A product of homesickness, the tradition began after a long stint on the road back during the group’s touring days.

“We had been on tour all over the country and hadn’t played at home for about six months,” front man Steve McMurry explains. “Charlotte, Asheville, Atlanta, South Carolina or anywhere. So somebody came up with the idea of having a little homecoming at The Orange Peel over Thanksgiving since everybody would be in town. We didn’t really make too big a hype out of it, just passed it around our network, mailing lists and everything.”

After the band “slammed it” on Thanksgiving two years in a row, the holiday show became a tradition. “We play a long time and take lots of requests. It’s basically for the people that always come see us. And it’s good to see all them. Acoustic Syndicate has a bad habit of letting everybody backstage after the show. It drives the staff at The Orange Peel nuts. But those are our friends, you know. I love the Thanksgiving show. That’s one of my favorite times.”

This year will be especially meaningful, finding Acoustic Syndicate relatively fresh off a nearly two-year break. McMurry says there were never any plans for the future or intentions to call it quits forever, and that that the band—composed of drummer Fitz McMurry, banjo player Bryon McMurry and bassist Jay Sander—just needed a break and to take a step back.

Years of heavy touring had taken their toll on the group. Supporting Acoustic Syndicate’s growing “machine” required the band to tour nearly 250 days a year just to make ends meet. For McMurry, that was a grim prognosis.

“We traveled this country from top to bottom and right to left,” he says. “And when we stopped, we were doing the best we’d ever done. It’s just that we were getting tired. Fitz had a brand-new baby at home. Bryon had a brand-new baby at home. And everybody was ready to do something else for a while. We didn’t make any big proclamations about the future or the past. We just said we were going to stop playing for a while.”

Last spring, however, Acoustic Syndicate was made an offer they couldn’t refuse. Faced with the opportunity to play a few of their favorite clubs for some “serious money,” the band realized that they could start over on their own terms.

McMurry admits he was apprehensive. “I was nervous about whether or not people would come. I just didn’t know. My radar wasn’t on for that. Initially I turned it down flat, like five times. I didn’t want to do it. I was just too scared about what would happen. And finally, everybody was on, and I said, ‘Why not. What the hell?’”

The result was a string of sold-out shows across the Southeast that reaffirmed the Acoustic Syndicate’s lasting impact and re-ignited band’s appetite for performing.

“Once we did that first show, we realized that we all missed it very much, and coming back to play a few every now and then seemed like the right thing to do,” says McMurry. “We’ve absolutely had a ball with it. It’s been great to get the old gang back together again and see all those people we used to see on a regular basis. Those first shows we did last spring did my soul a lot of good.”

While the reunion has been “a beautiful thing,” a lot can change in two years. While the band is pleased with the way things are working out, don’t expect to see any national tours on the agenda. McMurry reserves the right to step down at any time. “We’re just going to pick and choose our outings and not do it too much,” he says.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a few new surprises coming from Acoustic Syndicate in the near future. For instance, the band has discussed the possibility of recording again. “We’ve talked about it at length, more than once,” McMurry says. “I can’t say that it won’t happen, but I don’t know when.”

For now, however, McMurry says he’s happy with the way things are going. “We’ve all got jobs now and families. Everybody’s home every night and on the weekends. I can’t see any reason to upset that good, new balance that we’ve been able to strike with our lives post-band. We like getting together and playing, and we also like being able to turn it off. That’s kind of where it is.”

[Dane Smith is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]


who: Acoustic Syndicate
what: Reunited WNC bluegrass/Americana artists
where: Orange Peel
when: Saturday, Nov. 24 (9 p.m. $17. 225-5851 or www.theorangepeel.net)

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