Words by: Brendon Fisher | Images by: Tobin Voggesser
Umphrey's McGee :: 01.22 - 01.24 :: Colorado
A band has arrived when a cottage industry of forged hand stamps and counterfeit wristbands can support a pack of enterprising wookies on tour. That was the scene that greeted Umphrey's McGee as they took the stage at the Aggie Theatre for the first of what would turn out to be a legendary three nights in Colorado. The Aggie was not only sold out, it was a fire hazard.
One suspects that the band intentionally picked an undersized venue to boost their confidence and get a feel for the new material before barring their souls in the larger markets of Boulder and Denver. Over the last few years their performances have changed; for the band, it's no longer a floating party, now it's a career and they take their business seriously. And as consummate professionals with an enviable work ethic, they don't leave anything to chance, especially not the debut of their most important work to date.
Before the 2007 release of The Bottom Half - a collection of outtakes, extras and alternate versions of well known songs - rumors of a nearly completed album of all new material began to circulate on Internet discussion boards. By 2008, the band was confirming that they did indeed have a new record, but refused to either divulge its contents or perform any of the songs before its official release. While that approach is standard operating procedure for mainstream recording artists, it's anathema to the tour community, and it fueled endless speculation about the record's contents.
Umphrey's invested more than secrecy in the project, they also employed a novel marketing strategy. They allotted tiers of bonus material that would be made available as the number of preorders increased. The more units sold, the more freebies, and they remained true to their word about never playing the tunes live prior to release. Sure, they played "Made to Measure" over the most recent NYE run, but other than that, not a note was heard until the Mantis release party. Being pranksters of the highest caliber, the band opted to perform only one new song, "Cemetery Walk," that night, setting the stage for last week's Colorado run with expectations so high they bordered on the unrealistic. The devout would have to travel to the Rockies in the dead of winter if they wanted to be among the first to hear the new songs. Those that did weren't disappointed.
01.22.09 :: Aggie Theatre :: Fort Collins, CO
Opening with a couple familiar tunes to get their sea legs, the band eased into "Turn & Run" gingerly, as if unsure of what to expect. As everyone knows by now, Umphrey's employ an elaborate catalog of hand gestures and facial expressions to indicate tempo and key changes, segues and the like. Usually the audience isn't aware of it, resulting in a remarkably fluid transition from structured verse to jam and back again. But on this night, there seemed to be miscues and irritation coming from the stage, and the changes weren't as sharply delineated as fans have come to expect. The first set came across loose and scattered, and the band obviously struggled in places. As they settled into "Bridgeless" you could see them finally relax a bit before executing a clean segue into "Sociable Jimmy." Gaining confidence by the measure, they slipped back into "Bridgeless" to wrap up the set with visible relief.
Ryan Stasik :: 01.24 :: Denver, CO|
Any apprehension or miscommunication ended at set break. The next five sets were for the books and will ultimately be circulated with great enthusiasm. The second set featured two more premiers, "Spires," and then the title track "Mantis" in the encore slot. As the crowd poured out of the sweatbox, the mood was electric. Of course, contrarians could be heard complaining about the song selection and execution just as loudly as another contingent was hard at work fluffing the performance. The reality was that it had been a solid show, slightly above average, but still missing the X-factor that would elevate it into the pantheon of all-time greats.
Set I: Search 4, Great American, Turn & Run*, Bridgeless > Sociable Jimmy > Bridgeless
Set II: Cemetery Walk, In the Kitchen, Spires*, FF > Making Flippy Floppy$ > 2nd Self
Encore: Preamble* > Mantis*
* first time played, originals
$ with 2nd Self teases and "Seven Nation Army"/"How Many More Times" jam
01.23.09 :: Boulder Theatre :: Boulder, CO
Friday was the stuff of Umphrey's legend - balls to the wall, pedal to the metal, unrelenting sonic sophistication blasting from amps without letup for hours. The crowd reaction was overwhelming; they hung on every note and roared with approval. It wasn't just the music blowing minds though. While the band has been busy perfecting the album, they were also preoccupied with improving the visual aspect of their performance. Umphrey's has finally joined the fraternity of elite touring acts able to project a visual spectacle that rivals their musical chops.
Umphrey's McGee :: 01.23 :: Boulder, CO|
Even with the band delivering two full sets of inspired playing they were barely able to keep up with the visual styling of lighting designer Jeff Waful, who was busy making a splash with the fan base. In Boulder he finally had a large enough space and the infrastructure to support the massive rig the band just purchased, and he put the equipment through its paces like a man possessed. Even Jake Cinninger's most frenetic bursts of soling were no match for the multihued explosions of color Waful relentlessly sprayed through the venue.
They repeated "Spires" from the night before, and the improvement was instantly noticeable. The only debut was "1348," but there were plenty of crowd favorites like "2x2," "Soul Food I" and "Ocean Billy" stuffed to the point of bursting with new explorations and tasty hooks. Every time you think you've heard everything this band has to offer, they raise the ante by developing new sections and motifs inside of familiar tunes. The table was set for the final night and the anticipation was even higher - if such a thing were possible.
Set I: Made to Measure > "Jimmy Stewart" > White Man's Moccasins, Partyin' Peeps, Nothing Too Fancy$ > Walletsworth, Morning Song > Nothing Too Fancy
Set II: Spires, 2x2, Mail Package, Soul Food I, Ocean Billy, Alex's House > 1348*
Mulche's Odyssey > Immigrant Song
$ with Divisions teases
* first time played, original
01.24.09 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: Denver, CO
While this would be the only show to not sell out, they managed to pack the cavernous venue at least 75-percent of the way. This would be the their last opportunity to fill the void left by SCI calling it quits, and their performance suggests that they were aware of the challenge. The first set was a high-octane romp through powerhouses like "The Fussy Dutchman" and the epic "DBK." They repeated "Cemetery Walk," this time segueing into "Cemetery Walk II," where the lights stole the show. During set break it seemed unlikely that they would be able to top the peaks of the first set, but they hit the ground running and delivered the goods with a bust out of "Red Tape" drifting seamlessly into the always popular "HBB." Barely pausing to tune their guitars, they tore into "The Fuzz," and didn't stop again until they blasted through both "Utopian Fir" and "Prowler." By the time they lit into another take on "Mantis" you would be hard pressed to find anyone that wasn't satisfied with the run.
Brendan Bayliss :: 01.24 :: Denver, CO|
As the lights came up, people stood around with dazed expressions on their faces, as if they couldn't quite believe their ears. Umphrey's is known for devastating new fans and spoiling other bands. Once you've experienced their virtuosity it's hard to settle for a mediocre performance by anyone else. If this last weekend was any indication, Umphrey's McGee is busy reinventing their live act and has yet to peak. One can only wonder about where it goes from here, but you can be sure that the best is yet to come.
Set I: Turn & Run, Intentions Clear > The Fussy Dutchman, Der Bluten Kat > Meeting In The Aisle > Der Bluten Kat, Cemetery Walk > Cemetery Walk II*
Set II: Red Tape* > Hurt Bird Bath, The Fuzz > Utopian Fir > Prowler, Preamble > Mantis
Encore: Can't You Hear Me Knocking
Murphy vs Rootz opened
* first time played, originals
Umphrey's McGee is on tour now; dates available here.
And be sure to check our recent exclusive feature/interview with Umphrey's McGee here.
Continue reading for more pics of Umphrey's McGee's Colorado run...