"HALLO CLEVELAND!" | UMPHREY'S McGEE

When I found out that Umphrey's was going to postpone their stop in Pittsburgh, opting to play in New York City in front of a sold-out Irving Plaza crowd (understandable), I thought seriously about traveling to Cleveland for their Saturday night show at The Beachland Ballroom. I was told that The Beachland was a nicer room than Peabodys Down Under [my last Umphrey's show, 10.12.01 in Cleveland], so it looked like it was worth the trip.

After a two hour drive from Pittsburgh, three fellow fans and I arrived at the venue with about five minutes to spare. I ran around saying Hello to the band - I was excited to see them again, hear some new songs, and check out Adam's new light-toys. The room was of an OK size, with high ceilings, a stage about three feet off the ground, tan curtains; the bar was off to the right, next to the stage, making for an odd set-up. But to my pleasant surprise, there was a rather large crowd - helped, I am sure, by the All Ages designation.

"Soul Food I" started the night off on a nice, funky pace. Not as gritty and driving as it's sequel, "Soul Food" which lets the band get into a groove without asking too much. A good opener for the crowd. The band proceeded to jam into what I thought at first was "Kinky Reggae." Hopping up and down, all psyched for some Marley, I got even more excited as I realized it was actually "FF!" I had requested this oldie the last time they were in Cleveland, but due to Brendan's voice troubles, I didn't get it. But this evening Brendan's vocals were top notch. While it wasn't the complete version of "FF," it certainly was good enough.

"FF" progressed in a nifty little jam that reminded me of either "Lenny" or a small "Jimmy Stewart." It was rather mellow with some nice little melodies thrown in - definite Thrill Jockey/Tortoise feel. One of the highlights of the first set for me. This segued into The Police's "When the World is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around." Of all the covers UM has introduced this past year, I think they tackle The Police ones with great skill. I couldn't help but just smile and nod my head to my friends as I watched them enjoying themselves.

"Space Funk Booty" started immediately after "When the World..." SFB was full of effects and noises from Jake's moog jam to the screaming of the girls in front of Joel and Jake. I thought it was funny to hear the girls yell through-out the night - rawk stars, huh?

In the car ride up, I was trying to name some "classics" for Tom, and one I included was "2x2." Next to "Divisions," this is one of UM's most epic-sounding songs. And Saturday night's version did not disappoint. As most "2x2"'s go, this version soared when it needed to.

[Now, I don't know if Pony, UM's bassist, realized where he was playing Saturday night, but his Jerome Bettis shirt and terrible towel certainly had the crowd bantering. Somewhere in here, someone in the band made the point of saying that The Bus certainly didn't stop in Cleveland . . . (too bad he had to stop the next day).]

Last fall, Umphrey's introduced a number of new originals, many of them incorporating some nifty time changes and successful harmonies. One of those new songs was "Roulette," and I was very pleased with the version that was played Saturday. It always pleases me when Joel handles some of the vocal duties, and he and Brendan sound very good on this song.

Roulette segued into Frank Zappa's "Willie the Pimp," a song UM has been playing for a few months, and one that the crowd acknowledged with cheering. Jake just growls out the vocals to this song. With the bluesy feeling that "Willie" had, Jake and Brendan took this opportunity to do a bit of dueling on their guitars - back and forth, blues riff here and there.

"Willie" really had a gritty feel to it, a feel that Pony just grabbed and ran with on his bass. Pony's playing led into what certainly sounded like a song - a "new one" I guessed to myself. I must have had a quizzical look on my face, because from the stage, Brendan mouthed "Dump City" to me. Ahh, the title! I need to go back and listen to a version of this (and the other two new ones) before I can really form an opinion. But from what I can remember it was nice and funky.

"Syncopated Strangers" was next - while I am not a huge fan of this song, I do enjoy the lounge feel that you get at the end. A dark and driving version of "All Things Ninja" closed the set.

At the break, I was able to talk to the band a bit and they seemed to be in agreement that the first set was a bit choppy. I was excited to see how they would react in the second . . .

The second set began with one of those new songs from last fall - at first I was going to write down "White Man's Moccasins" (that would come later), but I realized it was "Hurt Bird Bath." With similar components to "Roulette," "Hurt Bird Bath" is a bit more energetic and rock-oriented. Very well played - immediately they meant business. The rock continued as the jam turned a bit grungey and dark . . .

. . . And as it slowed down, the jam surprisingly took on this very jazz oriented feeling. Between Mirro's drumming and Jake's guitar work, I could have been convinced it was an actual song. But as they progressed, I realized that we were in the middle of a "Jimmy Stewart." (Since last September, Umphrey's has been "scheduling" live improvisation in the middle of a show; usually, these sections are broken into four different themes, based on key or time signature. In just these past four months, these live sessions have led to some amazing music, mostly atmospheric and very textural. Cleveland's Session, without the benefit of clairvoyance, was named "Kordell Stewart" rather than the normal "Jimmy.") Throughout the jam, Joel, Pony, Jake on the moog, and then Pony again all took the lead.

The jam segued into another new song that I would find out later was "Push the Pig" - I wrote in my book: "new - Joel & Brendan! moog end." Again, I will need to listen to another version to jog my memory, but I can remember that I was rather impressed with this one and the interplay of the keys and Brendan.

After a short break, we were treated to "Band On the Run" - I had goose-bumps, to tell you the truth, as this was my first live version of UM's cover of this McCartney song. Great fun . . . I think the crowd was straining to see Mike Mirro sing the ending section.

The guitar-heavy instrumental "Tribute to Spinal Shaft" was next. Take Spinal Tap and Shaft, and, well . . .

Some nice piano work by Joel out the end of "Tribute," with some playing by Brendan, led slowly into "Hangover." There was a good response by the crowd to this tune, and while we didn't get a "Garbage Man" from Mirro, we did get a number of treats in this fun song. Jake quoted Philly's The Roots before launching into a bit of a beat-box jam; that led into a "gettin' jiggy all night long" by Brendan; then, Jake and Brendan, laughing all the way, attempted to mimic a DJ "scratching" on their guitars . . . and then back into "Hangover." Whew.

Now, the third song from last Fall's batch of songs came next - "White Man's Moccasins." As I mentioned above, at least to my ears, I hear similarities in "WMM" to "Hurt Bird Bath" (and to an extent, "Roulette"). A complex song that clearly shows off UM's talent in starting and stopping. It is almost dizzying to think about how they shift gears . . .

"You guyz like Santana?" Brendan asked the crowd, as Jake took his place next to Andy on the percussion and they launched into "Se A Cabo." A cover they have been playing for a while, Jake's addition adds to the percussion - Brendan can handle the guitar work and the three drummers take the opportunity to show off their skills. A great way to end the second set, getting a great response out of the crowd.

After the band left the stage, their manager Vince said we were going to have to do a little better than that - even though it was close to two in the morning, I don't think anyone wanted to leave just yet. The band came back out - I was expecting some fun Snoop cover for the Cleveland crowd.

So I was ever surprised when they broke into an old song, "August." Much like "2x2," "August" highlights Brendan's singing and lyrics, and has a rather wonderful soaring feeling to it. And they really did nail it - the definite highlight of the show for me. Jake seemed to take a back seat during this song, letting Brendan handle both the vocal duties and the soloing duties - and he certainly did come through. Wow . . .

And I would have been happy there. But before I knew it, the band segued into another new song. While this one had lyrics, I couldn't seem to place the title from reviews of the previous week. So, once again, Brendan caught my eye and mouthed "Gestures" - ah hah, "Gestures Under a Mitten." From what I remember, both the lyrics and the music twisted and turned around this song. What an encore, from the old "August" into the new "Gestures" - soaring and epic to the maze-like.

All in all, a Saturday night well-spent. I said my Good byes, knowing they had even a longer drive ahead of them back to Cleveland that night. And with the drive we had home, and the unfortunate game the next day, the UM show became the highlight of my weekend. The Second set, especially, with the "Jimmy Stewart," "Band on the Run," and most definitely the "August," made it all worth my while. Every time I hear new UM, either on disc or in person, I am stunned by how fast they are growing. Their skills as song-writers, Brendan's focus on his voice, their focus on group-improvisation . . . no wonder they are spreading the Jam.

Now, which shows in this upcoming marathon Spring Tour can I see . . . ?

Jeremy Welsh
JamBase | Middle America
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[Published on: 2/4/02]

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