Pete Donnelly, co-founder of The Figgs, took to the stage last weekend. But his usual button-down shirt and jeans were replaced with a cap and gown and a diploma replaced his guitar.
Donnelly wasn’t at Skidmore College to perform. He was there to graduate, 25 years after leaving the college.
“It felt great,” Donnelly said of finally walking the stage to get his diploma, “. . . but, honestly I couldn’t wait to take the gown off. It felt funny to me,” Donnelly said with a laugh.
He quickly got back into his musician uniform, the one he’s been favoring since The Figgs formed in 1987.
Donnelly started the band with Saratoga Springs High School classmate Mike Gent. The two played all throughout high school and brought on drummer Pete Hayes -- who was a Skidmore student -- in 1989. Their earliest music was inspired by the Ramones, Kinks and The Beatles.
“We just found each other . . . it was just the right crew,” Donnelly said.
Imago, a major record label, agreed with him and in 1994 they offered to sign The Figgs.
“We played Halloween night in 1993 and we got a record deal and literally the next day we got the opening slot for The Cranberries' American tour,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly took the chance and ran.
“There was no debating it at all. At that point I didn’t know if I would go back, but I was pretty focused on the music and had already been touring quite a bit. As soon as that deal happened, right then and there, we were just ready to go,” Donnelly said.
Since leaving Skidmore, Donnelly toured with The Cranberries, with Graham Parker, played with NRBQ (New Rhythm and Blues Quartet), Soul Asylum and Shelby Lynne.
He also married Sharla St. Rose and started a family. For over 20 years, he worked on solo projects, assisted other musicians with production work, raised his kids and let college stay in the past.
But two years ago, he started thinking about the next step. His wife asked if he’d ever want to finish his degree.
“I said ‘That’s a good idea! I should look into that.’ I did and somehow Skidmore reaccepted me,” Donnelly said.
Skidmore had been like a second home growing up. His father, Denis and his mother, Jackie, both worked there and they still live in the Saratoga Springs area. During his first two years at the college in the 1990s, he studied only music and art.
“It’s funny because . . . by taking all my electives in those first two years [I] actually completed my music major. If I hadn’t done that, they wouldn’t have accepted me,” Donnelly said.
He worked toward completing the rest of his general education credits through online classes and near his home at New Jersey colleges like Rutgers and Camden County Community College.
While going back to college presented its own challenges -- especially two online Spanish classes -- his experiences as a musician and as a parent gave him a completely different perspective on how to tackle those trials.
“Most people that we know think that parenting is no big deal and in this sexist culture men work and women raise kids and that’s the easiest thing. But the reality is that there is nothing harder, more demanding or stressful than raising a family and trying to maintain yourself . . . It’s not to be taken for granted. The real life of managing a family and having career, it’s on a whole other level,” Donnelly said.
He took courses in during the regular fall and spring semesters, as well as the summer.
“I’m diversifying my future by doing it. I wanted a reset to my brain,” Donnelly said.
With his bachelor's degree in music and art, Donnelly plans to continue his solo projects, work as a producer, and of course, play with The Figgs.
The band has stayed together over the past 30 years, even though the members live in different cities now. They’ve released over 20 albums and play a few shows every year throughout the United States.
“We get together a fair amount to make records,” Donnelly said, “We don’t really get together to rehearse, that’s why we’re doing this weekend of shows.”
They’ll be playing in Albany Memorial Day weekend at The Low Beat on Friday and Saturday.
The Figgs usually come back ‘home’ to the Capital Region to play twice a year.
“Saratoga feels like home in a big way. It’s changed a lot and sometimes going back I can take a walk and it can be a little lonely because it’s so foreign but then I’ll walk down a side street and a million memories will come flooding back of all the different things I did in that place and it’s familiar in a way nothing else ever could be,” Donnelly said.
To catch The Figgs this weekend, head to The Low Beat at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.