Umphrey’s McGee @ Red Butte Garden 09.08
Umphrey’s McGee at Red Butte Garden: worth dropping a class for.
I’m only partially joking. Did I drop a Thursday night class I was going to skip anyways to see these guys tear down the house at my favorite venue? Yes. Was it because of the concert? Maybe not entirely, but it made the decision a hell of a lot easier!
Hailing from Indiana, Umphrey’s McGee comprises Brendan Bayliss (guitar, vocals), Joel Cummins (keyboards, vocals), Ryan Stasik (bass), Andy Farag (percussion), Jake Cinninger (guitar, vocals) and Kris Myers (drums, vocals). From that lineup alone (and the fact that the drummer sings), you know you’re listening to a jam band. But this concert wasn’t just listening to a jam band—it was experiencing it.
Let me set the scene: the sun is setting on the beautiful outdoor amphitheater that is Red Butte. The crowd is small (it is a Thursday after all, and some people have class) but still mighty. Band shirts depicting Phish, the Disco Biscuits, past music festivals (I see you, Hulaween!) and of course, Grateful Dead stealies are all around. It’s clearly the start of a promising two-set night.
With no opener, Umphrey’s McGee took the stage right on time at 7 and immediately began to kick ass; no hello, just a dreamy, multi-instrumental intro that turned into “I Don’t Know What I Want.” It’s a punchy one, easy to bob along to, and as a set opener, it’s a good one to ease the crowd in—it’s only six minutes, after all.
Lead singer Bayliss offered the crowd a happy “Utah!” at the song’s closure. “Thank you very much for coming out to Pete Shapiro’s birthday party,” he joked. (Pete Shapiro is a known concert tour promoter, responsible for the Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead tour.) But why waste the short time of two full sets on talking? Umphrey’s jumped right into another song.
“Cut The Cable” went harder than its predecessor. The crowd embraced the heavier guitar immediately, moving like they couldn’t be stopped. Cinninger and Bayliss played off each other well on stage, fingers flying across the guitars as they traded solos and riffs. But as my dear friend Scott Zuckerman said, the drummer was taking no prisoners. Like I said, listening to a jam band is always enjoyable, but to watch these incredible musicians create live is an experience worth making time for.
Umphrey’s has got some pretty amazing covers. In fact, they released an entire cover album of genre-bending mashups: Zonkey, which I highly recommend checking out if you want to know what a mashup of MJ’s “Rock With You,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face” sounds like. (Spoiler—it is awesome.) All this to say it came as a surprise when, for the last month, Umphrey’s live shows were devoid of covers. I wasn’t holding out much hope that this random show would be any different. Oh, what a fool I was.
Three songs into the first set, Umphrey’s lays down a reggae beat with psychedelic synths leading in. I didn’t recognize what it was until the guitar came in, cluing me in that we were being treated to a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe.” The spacey synths were a weird, cool fit against Farag’s bongos. What can I say—Umphrey’s McGee just has a knack for providing covers I didn’t know I needed to hear!
“Breathe” slowly turned into a lively, 18-minute long “Nothing Too Fancy,” featuring a solid four-minute build before they dropped into the song’s bounciness. Here, the band really played around with rises and falls in true jamband nature, keeping the audience literally on their toes as they jumped around. “Nothing Too Fancy” descended into “Miami Virtue” without pause, which then transformed into a ripping “Walletsworth.” If you’re someone who doesn’t think jambands are hard enough, seriously, give this version a listen! Hearing the guitar part before the lyrics come in should be enough to change your mind.
Umphrey’s closed the first set with “Syncopated Strangers,” a song with some electronica-esque synth dalliances. I was unfamiliar with this one, and it took me for a ride. About three-quarters of the way through, the music softens out into a pleasant, coffee-shop-electric-guitar sound. To say that it was unexpected would be an understatement, but I really enjoyed the sweet end to set one.
Set two started off electric and only got better! “Pure Saturation” kicked the dancing right back into gear like there was never a break to begin with. That went right into “Prowler,” a song that would be the perfect background for a video game boss fight. The first few seconds had me sending an email to Mr. Nintendo himself petitioning for the use of this song when fighting Bowser. (I’m still waiting to hear back.)
“Prowler” ends with a steady build, guitars and drums and bass all playing off each other until—bam! It all fades out except for a lone guitar riff that brings us to “Remind Me.” That’s one of my favorite parts about jam bands: just when you think they’re bringing you in for the killer climax, they pull the rug right out from under you. It’s even better when you think that surely, they can’t rip a harder riff than this—this has to be where the song’s chaos peaks—but you will be sorely mistaken. They can, and they will, go beyond. “Remind Me” is a great example of this. Peaks and valleys galore with some heavy rock guitar solos that will make you go, “This is what a jam band is?” Yep. Better get used to the genre-defying sounds! Myers certainly enjoyed it, ending “Remind Me” with several energetic “yeah-yeah-yeah-yayahs” that gave Bayliss’ vocals a run for his money.
The second set only consisted of six songs total, which meant that with the exception of “Prowler,” each song’s runtime was in the double digits. This was perfectly fine with me; Umphrey’s certainly put the jam in jam band this set. “Deeper” followed “Remind Me,” a gentler song that gave the audience a break from headbanging. That is, until “Deeper” became “Puppet String,” and then all bets were off from that first, iconic guitar phrase.
“Puppet String” is a favorite between me and my dad (look at what you’ve created, Dad!), and this nearly 20-minute long version cemented that. There’s something about how every element, from the bouncy bassline to the smooth keys and picked guitar line, is isolated before it mashes together and pulls you in. I don’t love Umphrey’s for their lyrics, but screaming “How the hell should I know?” with Bayliss as the band came crashing in is intensely gratifying.
Before wrapping up, Bayliss dedicated the last song to the band’s good friend who flew into the show from Japan. It had been three years since the band had last seen her. That heartwarming sentiment set the tone for the gentle, nearly nostalgic guitar that begins “Hajimemashite,” paired with the opening lyrics of “I didn’t know things were supposed to be this way.” It was the kind of closer that had you reflecting on the show you just witnessed, ending the set and leaving you with a smile on your face.
And of course, in true jam band fashion, there’s still more music. Umphery’s encore began with Bayliss thanking the crowd for coming out. It had been four years since Umphrey’s had been to Utah, and as Bayliss said, the crowd had “musical options” to choose from. (Roger Waters was performing at Vivint Arena, hence the cover selection.) Sticking with the theme, the band launched into Pink Floyd’s “In The Flesh.” Umphrey’s nailed the grandiose phrases, and keyboardist Cummins got really into the vocals. There was no end for this song—Cummins and the band crescendoed right into “Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2.” This cover didn’t have a reggae beat like “Breathe,” but damn did we all enjoy it—even more so when it turned into a reprise of “Nothing Too Fancy” that absolutely brought the house down. ‘80s-esque synth soared above some fantastic guitar jamming that built and built before it all came crashing down, back in sync, for a fun, dancey end to my Thursday night.
Hopefully it won’t take four more years for Umphrey’s to make it back to Salt Lake, but hey, I’m prepared to wait—and to drop more classes if necessary. In the meantime, you can listen to this show (and tons of other fantastic bands) on nugs.net. Those soundboard recordings don’t replace making it out to a show, but it’ll get us through the waiting period for another Umphrey’s McGee performance. –Alexis Perno
Read more from Alexis Perno:
Hiatus Kaiyote @ Union Event Center 09.01
Salt Lake Crossroads Amateur Radio Club: Craft Lake City DIY Engineer