Umphrey’s McGee ft. Joshua Redman with Spafford
College Street Music Hall
New Haven, CT
January 26, 2017
Story, photos, and video by Kelly D
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To try to categorize Umphrey’s McGee is to attempt to cram a full-grown tiger into a cat carrier. You just can’t do it. Their genre-melding and -melting improvised jam sessions during their concerts have been the stuff of legend for decades and their devoted fanbase is a testament to that. I became a part of it last night in New Haven. It was my first time seeing Umphrey’s and I assure you it won’t be my last. Forgive my lack of brevity, but I think my initiation into the world of “\mm/” (the band’s logo- what looks like a two-handed devil’s horn salute, making the letters “UM”) should be properly documented.
Flying solo, I arrived at College Street Music Hall, a venue with about 2,000-person capacity, to shiver in line waiting for my ticket at Will Call. I was surprised at the size of the queue, seeing as it was already 8:15 and ostensibly Spafford, the opening act, had begun shortly before. It was already a love-fest, with fans in Umphrey’s swag greeting each other and hugging in reunion. Shortly after I strode inside to fetch one of the coolest parts of the night: the “Headphones & Snowcones” deal.
Unique to any other touring band, UM provides a limited amount of radio packs with headphones that have the soundboard audio piped into them. As long as one is in range of the soundboard, one gets crisp sound no matter where they are in the venue. Not only that, one also receives a download of the show afterwards. After meeting the band’s merch guy, Louie, who showed me how to use it properly, I played around with the volume control during the rest of Spafford’s set. I later described it as “manipulating reality”- even though at that point I was in the back of the music hall, I could hear the THWACK of the drumsticks on the toms like they were directly in front of me. It was disconcerting in a good way- I couldn’t wait for Umphrey’s McGee to come on and truly hear what they had to offer in the most ideal way possible.
Spafford was a good selection as an opener; their sound was very reminiscent of the Allman Brothers Band, Pink Floyd, and Phish wrapped up in one band. They played till about 8:45, then it was time for Umphrey’s, a half hour later.
During the intermission, I slipped down to the pit- College Street Music Hall has tiered general admission floors, as well as a loge and balcony with reserved seating- and made my way as close to the front as I could. I was well aware of my status as a newbie and quietly took it all in: the atmosphere was chill and relaxed, no doubt in part due to the thick pervasive cloud of cannabis smoke that hung in the air all night. However, as crowded as the pit was, everyone was respectful of the concept of personal space for most of the night. I positioned myself in second row center, in front of Kris Myers’ drumkit and awaited these feted professionals to take the stage.
The first set kicked off with a song featuring the squealing keys of Joel Cummins, “Nipple Trix.” Cummins charmed me throughout the evening, singing along sans microphone and smiling with lead singer/guitarist Brendan Bayliss to the next song, “Slacker,” and providing a special piece of the encore at the end of the show. . . More on that later.
The light show for both Spafford and UM was top-notch: I say this having been spoiled seeing Howard Ungerleider’s light effects in concert for Rush dozens of times. The beams of light, coupled with a fog machine (or was that still the weed smoke?) made the atmosphere shimmer and flow like gossamer. As I gazed up in awe, Bayliss sang in my ear, “You have yet to ever witness our best.” How true that was. I took that to be a promise that they were only going to get better throughout the night.
To most others in the audience, there was a glaring omission on stage. Bayliss took to the mic to explain that they were “man down” as guitarist Jake Cinninger was home sick with the flu. But, as Bayliss explained, “We’re gonna be a team. We’re doing this one for Jake” and dedicated their song “Wellwishers” to him to wild whoops of approval.
Throughout all this, I admired Myers on the skins and Ryan Stasik on bass (as they were the closest to me in my point of view). On the following three songs, “Sociable Jimmy,” “Sweetness,” and “Mad Love,” I was transfixed by the monolithic columns of unidentifiable material behind them, at times reminiscent of aluminum foil or a lava lamp. The strobe lights that occasionally came into play made the members of the band look like a living flipbook- even though I was dead sober for the entire performance, the effect definitely gave the night a dreamlike, surreal quality. I imagine those who were in altered state appreciated it even more than I did. The crowd around me swayed and danced- during percussionist Andy Farag’s conga and bongo solo, particularly, and as the band jammed through the songs, decelerating at times and then smashing the proverbial pedal to the floor to whip their fans into screaming, jumping, arm-flailing dervishes.
Joshua Redman, however, was the ultimate highlight of the evening. Bayliss introduced the slight, unassuming tenor saxophone player to play on songs in both sets, beginning with “Speak Up.” I can confidently say I’ve never seen anyone wail on a sax like he did. During his multiple raging solos of the night, the audience was absolutely shrieking with amazement. I was glad to have splurged on the headphones because the versatility of the instrument and Redman’s immense talent shone through any other ambient noise . The last song of set one, “Booth Love,” climaxed with a crazy crescendo of saxin’ and then in a delightful bit of whimsy, abruptly ended. Coitus Umphreptus.
During the intermission, I realized bassist Stasik strongly resembled Benny from Dazed and Confused with his snapback and jean jacket emblazoned with his own band’s logo. This tickled me as I waited for set two to begin, attempting to ignore my sore back and feet.
“Der Bluten Kat” kicked things back off at 11 PM, with Redman back onstage with the rest of the guys. He stayed on for four more songs: “Final Word” (sandwiched between lengthy jams of “Der Bluten Kat”), “Day Nurse,” “Wife Soup,” and “Dear Lord.” Bayliss cheekily demanded everyone flick their Bic, as it were, for “Final Word”: “We’re going to need about 50 lighters. . . About five more.” The crowd happily obliged, filling the hall with tiny firelight. The sweet music turned into a crunchy groove and back again throughout these songs, the funkiness of one sounding like Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”
During “Wife Soup,” some enterprising young woman (I assume) tossed a bra onstage leaving it to dangle on a piece of equipment for the rest of the set. This addition to the stage went unacknowledged, as the focus was on Redman’s blistering sax solo, coupled with the gorgeous harmonious vocals of UM and the heavenly white lights beaming down from the ceiling, made for a most exquisite feast for the senses- undergarment notwithstanding. Redman then casually left the stage after the song ended, leaving all of us watching agape. Is this dude even human? How could he possibly stroll calmly offstage after melting our faces like that?
Umphrey’s proper wasn’t done, however, not by a long shot. They then launched into a dub version of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe,” including the reprise heard on “Time.” They left the stage, but only to have Joel Cummins come back and tell the audience that while usually they don’t repeat songs when they play the same city, they decided to bend the rule and honor the recently departed Butch Trucks. He began a piano-only version of the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica” as tribute. It was a beautiful gesture. The rest of the band members snuck back onstage at the end, Bayliss fanning off Cummins with aforementioned brassiere, and played their own “Uncommon.” A joyous version of Men at Work’s “Down Under” finished off the night. After tossing out setlists in the forms of crumpled balls, the band bid us adieu.
Walking gingerly back to the merch booth, boot soles sticking to the beer-stained floor, I returned my audio pack to Louie, who sweetly remembered my name (well, maybe it was because of the partially-shaved head and inch-long fake eyelashes). Handing it to him, I declared, big smile on my face, “I’ll definitely be back.”
To see more of Kelly D’s photography of the Umphrey’s McGee show, including the infamous bra, check out her art page on Facebook at Vital Visions: Art by Kelly D
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