When Umphrey’s McGee first ventured to North Carolina in 2002, they weren’t exactly welcomed with enthusiasm. The crowd numbered in the dozens instead of the hundreds, even though the music was routinely spectacular. Few of the attendees of those “intimate” gigs could have predicted that, within the same decade, the band would be one of the hottest draws in the state year after year.
That’s what happens when the music warrants attention. The band’s powerful sound could not go unnoticed for long, and as early as the Fall of 2003 Umphrey’s McGee had captured the ears and minds of music-hungry southerners who know a good thing when they hear it. A few festivals here, an Acoustic Planet tour and a double bill with The Disco Biscuits there, and the Umph suddenly held a profound grip on the south.
The Chicago-based band seems to know when it’s time to get out of the cold, and they have graced North Carolina with several February shows over the years. I was happy to celebrate the 7th anniversary of my first show with a weekend run in Asheville and Charlotte on February 21st and 22nd, 2009, with the band a month removed from the innovative, overtly fan-inclusive release of their 8th album, Mantis.
The band rarely visits our state on weekends, so the Saturday night show at Asheville’s Orange Peel sold out rapidly. A wide, airy room with forgiving wooden floors and the friendliest staff around, The Orange Peel also boasts other fan-friendly traits such as re-entry, great sound quality, and an eclectic beer selection. It’s no wonder, then, that UM gave their all on this evening.
The show had a little bit (and in some cases, a lot) of everything that makes an Umphrey’s performance memorable. There were plenty of carefully constructed segues between songs, as well as moments of more spontaneously inspired collective improvisation, along with a healthy dose of the band’s irrepressible playfulness. The song selection reflected the night’s wide-open spirit, as the sextet chose a widely varying mix of rarities, classics, and new material to perform.
The start of the show continued a trend from two previous shows in Atlanta, as the band proceeded to play along with their own pre-recorded music as they took the stage. This foreboding figure found its way into the Mantis-opening “Made to Measure,” and we were off and running. The full glory of the band’s new light setup unfurled beneath the masterful hand of new lighting designer Jeff Waful and made his talent immediately apparent. It’s easy to tell that Waful is planning to give each song a distinct look that will carry on from show to show, giving the audience visual touchstones to associate with each song.
He also proved that he knows when to let the visuals simmer and when to turn on the afterburners, as the lights were not as “busy” as they had come to be over the years. With Umphrey’s music, I can imagine it would be easy to go overboard with seizure-inducing lights most of the time, but this was not the case. Waful utilized big, bold color combinations most of the time and turned the kaleidoscope up to maximum only when necessary.
“Made to Measure” somewhat unceremoniously dropped into “Words,” and the band began finding its stride for the evening. They were fully percolating by the time they worked their way through the climactic ending of “Words,” and they never stopped brewing their deeply textured sound. Things really got cooking with Joel Cummins’ cascading piano on the frenetic instrumental “Fussy Dutchman,” the first of many older songs that would surface. Cummins and guitarist Jake Cinninger led the band through a loping, dramatic jam that made the most of the song’s flexibility and finished up with a breakneck return to the main melody.
The steely “Search 4” featured typically puzzling lyrics harmonized by Cinninger and guitarist Brendan Bayliss. Ryan Stasik added a profoundly agile bass solo to the middle of the song’s wide-open jam segment, and Cinninger brought it to a close with a scorching solo of his own. The loosey-goosey funk of “Kabump” birthed the highlight of the first set as it gradually bled into the increasingly rare “The Fuzz,” which, after morphing into moments of fiery, stratospheric improvisation and lowdown synth-funk, culminated in a relentless set-closing performance of “1348.”
“1348” has become an instant favorite among the band’s fan base, and it’s easy to see why. The song combines a pummeling prog-rock intro with one of their most well written vocal segments and a dynamic, chaotic combination of moods. While it works in nearly any spot, it particularly shines as a set closer, where it can whip the crowd into a frenzy.
Having left the crowd wanting more, Umphrey’s gave them all they could handle during a second set that rivals any I have seen them perform. Returning to the stage with style, the band presented a unique song sandwich in which the dance-ready instrumental “Cemetery Walk 2” was contained within the popular “Plunger.” “Cemetery Walk 2” arose from the breakdown in “Plunger” with Cummins’ endearing piano leading the way into a crowd-pleasing rave-up rife with feverish beats and inspired cerebral textures. The jam melted down to silence and Cinninger steered the band back into “Plunger” with a plucky solo. It was nice to see “Plunger” spruced up with multiple jams and serving as a bookend, as the song has been one of their most frequently performed in recent years.
The madness was just beginning, however, as the frantic “Plunger” ending opened up into a mind-bending group improvisation full of delightfully demented guitar work and brooding bass. This dark segment eventually moved into a lighter, funkier segment led by Bayliss’ squawking string bends that featured impressive work from every member of the band. Andy Farag’s percussion teamed with Kris Meyer’s drumming to lend a busy polyrhythmic feel to the proceedings while Cummins and Stasik utilized the breathing room between their contributions to add to the funky feel.
The lively segment finally gave way to the playful “Dump City,” which continued the dance-heavy, funky vibe of the set so far. “Dump City” has an accommodating construction that allows for plenty of instrumental hijinks, and Cummins added some growling synth work into the spaces, eventually venturing forth on his own, standing up and delivering a wild barrage of sounds with no accompaniment.
Meyers then ushered the band into the briefest of “Billie Jean” jams, subsequently igniting a period of relentless interplay and improvisation. Musical ideas and exploration zinged furiously around the stage, as jazzy breakdowns begat more of the evening’s ever-present funk, punctuated by fearless soloing. Somehow finding their way back to the closing riff of “Dump City,” the band put fierce closure on one of the most enjoyable jam sessions of the young year.
More fun and games followed this exhausting collage of tunes. Briefly wearing specially designed “Mantis” glasses given to him by a fan, Stasik held up his end of a football bet with another fan by delivering a singular cover of “Safety Dance” as only he can. Performed only a handful of times in the band’s history, Stasik’s droll rendition of the song served as a setlist statisticians dream, exciting the few fans in the crowd who had seen the song performed previously. Even Bayliss acknowledged the rare bustout, altering the lyrics of the “Roulette” that followed to reflect the momentous occasion: “Think of all that’s come to pass/and all the things that fall apart too fast/Had you tried, could you do a Safety Dance.”
After a routinely dazzling “Roulette” with a cinematic, hopeful jam and a drums-only ending, Umphrey’s kept running the fast break, delivering a trio of classics to close the evening out. Putting this show over the top were a highly creative version of “The Triple Wide,” a scorching, maniacal “Andy’s Last Beer,” and the consummate encore of “All in Time,” complete with Stasik wearing a Stormtrooper hoody and the band incorporating the “Imperial March” theme from Star Wars into the jam.
This special show displayed the band’s continuing evolution, and prime examples were found in Bayliss’ improved soloing and increased daring on the guitar, Farag’s growing presence in the rhythmic mix, and the whole band’s effortless onstage communication. As soon as the last note was over, anticipation grew for the next night’s show in Charlotte.
The Neighborhood Theatre is about as different from the Orange Peel as you can get. Much smaller and less symmetrical, the Neighborhood is a quirky joint with a sloped concrete (or harder) floor, a small balcony, some seats on the sides of the main room, and a smaller stage adjacent to the main stage. Interestingly, the show was very different as well.
Though the band once again took the stage and began playing along to their own pre-recorded music, the similarities between the two shows end there. The Charlotte show was rather deliberately executed, while Asheville had more of a wide-open feel, making for two very different experiences.
Umphrey’s makes more significant changes to their game in less than 24 hours than some bands can hope to in a career. The songs chosen on this evening stood much more on their own than the free-flowing selections of the previous night. As usual, the band was uncannily tuned in to each other’s musical movements and as tight as ever, but some of the song selections left something to be desired. The performances, as usual, were top notch.
The pop-rocking sounds of “Red Tape” emerged from the show-opening jam, followed by an above average reading of “Got Your Milk (Right Here) that featured a surfy, dubby “Jimmy Stewart” (a common name for the band’s planned improvisational segments). Two songs into the show, this evening had a somewhat pronounced paint-by-numbers feel that was only enhanced by the subsequent “Anchor Drops” and “Partyin’ Peeps” appearances, though the cliff-diving drop into “Anchor Drops” out of the frenetic “Stewart” was executed incredibly.
The clear highlight of the first set was a spot-on cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” thoroughly embellished by Waful’s brilliant lighting. Cinninger and Bayliss traded vocal parts, and each singer’s voice uncannily fit their part, with Cinninger taking the verses and Bayliss delivering the chorus. The set-closing “In the Kitchen” meandered for a bit but neatly incorporated an instrumental version of “Prophecy Now,” which is the most recent addition to the live show from Mantis, before rounding itself out with typical fury.
The workmanlike show continued in the second set with the always welcome “Pay the Snucka,” as dubious a set opener as any Umphrey’s fan could wish for. The blissfully vulgar first section of the song was quickly jammed into the sublime “Alex’s House,” which stayed true to its indulgent form and showcased Cinninger’s slide guitar work. The somewhat rickety transition back into “Snucka” was thoroughly cleansed by some maniacal shredding from Cinninger (video), an otherworldly contribution from Cummins, and a cataclysmically head banging ending.
The bouncy “2nd Self” provided needed respite for band and audience after the blitzkrieg of the “Snucka” sandwich. Their respite was short-lived, however, as the band launched into “Get In The Van,” an increasingly rare gem that dates back to their earliest days. This version proved rough around the edges as the band began to exhibit some fatigue during the homestretch of their 8th set in 4 days.
Not willing to throw in the towel, Umphrey’s never paused before kicking into “Mulche’s Odyssey.” Loosening up a bit, they managed to wring a substantial “Rock and Roll Part 2” jam out of the restless “Mulche’s” froth, seamlessly returning to the song’s closing lick when they were done.
Determined to give their all for the southern run crowd, they played for another 45 minutes, which included the epic multi-sectional “Mantis” and a spirited “Hurt Bird Bath,” the latter of which was a journey in itself. It featured a nifty tease of the “People’s Court” theme in the intro along with a spontaneously formed nod to Wings’ “Let ‘Em In,” on the fly and in rapid-fire fashion (See how this jam came together at the Umphrey’s blog, The Floor).
The encore – a gift from the band that simply put the cherry on top of these shows – featured a one-two punch of the classic instrumental “Tribute to the Spinal Shaft,” complete with “Xxxplosive” teases, and my favorite of the Mantis songs, “Turn and Run.” That the band could muster the energy to blaze through multiple sections of “Spinal Shaft,” not to mention a brilliant segue into the emotional “Turn and Run,” is in itself a testament to Umphrey’s McGee’s dedication and love of their craft and their fans.
As spectacular as the music was, the shows were made even more memorable by the presence of friends from all over the country, who have been forming a community around the band for over a decade. Umphrey’s McGee continues giving their fans ample reason to gather, celebrate, and share in their perpetually evolving musical vision.
–View our full, unedited photo gallery from these shows.
–Check out Ryan Stasik’s video of Jake Cinninger’s Charlotte “Snucka” shredding.
–Read sound guru Kevin Browning’s insight into how an impromptu jam like “Let ‘em In” comes to be.
–Read Joel Cummins’ blog post about the pre-recorded intros to the southern tour shows.
-Download Asheville from UMLive
-Download Charlotte from UMLive
-Buy Mantis on CD or MP3
All photos by Esther Rodgers