Article by Chris Baker
Umphrey’s McGee doesn’t just put on a show, they throw a party. Imagine, for a moment that you’re at a fraternity party in a crowded basement stuffed with sweaty teens, throbbing to the beat of an unrecognizable song. A seemingly unlimited supply of warm beer is fueling the drunken coeds. Now replace the sea of Greek-lettered sweatshirts with an assortment of flannel, tye-dye and band t-shirts and exchange your collar-popping hosts for a throng of bleary-eyed hipsters. Lastly, trade in that crummy rap music blaring out of the cheap sound system for one of the tightest live acts on the touring circuit. Now you’ve got yourself an Umphrey’s show.
I met a few friends at Westcott Street around 6:00 to grab a bite to eat and enjoy the scene before the show. The bar across the street was hopping with concertgoers and folks hoping to score an extra ticket. Within five minutes of sitting down at the bar, a “gentleman” approached and asked if we had any extras. Fortunately for him, my friend had been given two free tickets and was looking to unload one of them. Being the good guy that he is, he gave the kid the ticket free of charge. He bought us a round of beers and we called it even. I love concerts.
We finished our meal in time to get in line before the doors open and landed ourselves a spot in the second row. For those of you unfamiliar with the Westcott, it’s nothing more than an old movie theater whose seats have all been removed and whose screen was replaced with a relatively small stage. It holds about 750 people and is one of my favorite places to see a show, not only because of the intimate setting, but because it’s practically right down the street from where I grew up. I ran into a number of familiar faces from my past at the show, including an awkward encounter with an old romantic interest whose calls I stopped returning (if you’re reading, sorry Kristin).
By 8:00 the place was packed beyond capacity. The band took their time getting to the stage, waiting until close to 9:00 to open set one. By that point, most of the crowd had been standing in anticipation for nearly two hours. The roar that erupted when they finally graced us with their presence was overpowering. The temperature in the crowded room immediately skyrocketed and we would spend the rest of the night breathing stale air and sweating along with the 800 or so packed in behind us.
The audience however wasn’t the only ones who had a tight squeeze. With six band members, including two drummers, real estate was limited on the small stage. Brendan Bayliss took center stage on guitar and lead vocals, right next to Jake Cinninger playing lead axe and backup vocals. Joel Cummins sat to Brendan’s left on keyboards and Ryan Stasik floated around on bass. Behind the strings sat Kris Meyers and Andy Farag, the group’s percussion duo.
The first set opened like a gunshot with “Jazz Odyssey” and “Example 1”, which eventually transitioned into perhaps the most impressive guitar feat of the night: “The Fussy Dutchman”. Bayliss and Cinninger synced up on a shredding guitar solo that seemed to never stop accelerating. Perhaps what I love most about this band is that they come right out of the gate with such tremendous energy. They had the entire room pulsing together as they cranked through an uninterrupted 30 minutes of rip-roaring guitar solos to open the show. They engaged the crowd for the duration of the show, and not a minute went by where the entire place wasn’t moving.
After a quick shout out to the hometown, the band gave Cummins a chance to show off on the keyboards with “Got Your Milk,” one of the few lyrically charged songs in a night heavily dominated by guitar riffs and drum beats. They threw in homage to Ted Nugent halfway through the song when they busted out “Strangehold” and then leapt right back into “Milk,” followed shortly by a jazzier tune, “Anchor Drops”.
“Anchor Drops” was followed by a three song series to close out the set, featuring “Dump City,” the opening verses of “Nemo,” and an extended “Mulche’s Odyssey” to take it home. The lights flickered on and, as if we were one entity, the crowd made a mass exodus for the exit. The heat that seemed so insignificant while we were entranced by the music was now overbearing without the band onstage to distract and entertain us. We poured into the streets with beers in hand and cigarettes aglow. Security did its best to regulate the drinking going on in the streets but, as the guy next to me put it, “It’s an Umphrey’s show man. The rules don’t apply here.”
We headed back in for the second set and, having surrendered our spot in the second row, staked out our territory back by the soundboard. We got ourselves some Jamaican Budweisers (Red Stripe) and tried to stay cool before the second set. Despite being close to the back of the room, however, we were still jammed in like sardines and, before the second set even starts, I’m sweating again.
Umphrey’s retook the stage about 30 minutes after they’d walked off, and the crowd, despite fatigue, sweat and limited wiggle-room, was more enthusiastic than ever. The band, eager to reward us for packing in this claustrophobic nightmare, came out with a blazing second set seeped in electronica that delved even deeper into the psychedelic. They opened up with “Atmosfarag,” a heavy, electronic tune and one of my favorites. They moved on with “Out of Order” and reprised the remaining verses of “Nemo,” much to the crowd’s delight.
The riff that opened the next song sent shivers down my spine as the band cranked out a two-song Pink Floyd series starting with “In The Flesh” and pushing right along into “Another Brick In The Wall”. Cummins channeled David Gilmour with an eerie chorus of “Daddy what’d ya leave behind for me?!” The room went wild as the crowd shouted along with Cummins.
Balloons and beach balls seemed to materialize out of thin air during the second set, and they slowly filled the already congested venue. The crowd, however, remained undeterred. After beginning “In The Flesh,” the band wouldn’t stop playing for nearly 45 minutes. They banged out extended jams of “Bridgeless” and “Professor Wormbog” before breaking into none other than “I Ran,” A Flock of Seagulls cover. Throngs of younger attendees looked around in bewilderment as the crowd sang along with a song made popular by a band they had never heard of.
“I Ran” was followed by “Last Man Swerving” and the set closed out with a rocking version of “Bridgeless” that left the crowd begging for more. The band wasn’t off the stage for a minute before returning and rewarding the rowdy crowd with an encore of “Andy’s Last Beer.”
Despite the discomfort (or maybe because of it) this was one of the more energized shows I’ve seen in a long time. Umphrey’s is one of the most relentless bands currently on tour and they feed off the energy provided by the crowd. Four days after the show, my ears are still ringing and my throat is still sore; all signs of a hell of a party.