Umphrey’s McGee @ Brooklyn Bowl, January 20th
Words: Scott Bernstein
Images: Jeremy Smith
If there’s ever an example of hard work paying off, look no further than the career of Umphrey’s McGee who celebrated their 15th anniversary at Brooklyn Bowl on Sunday night. Far from an overnight sensation, UM has played over 1,800 shows and 730 different songs since forming on the campus of Notre Dame in early 1998. The sextet built a huge and loyal fanbase organically and never skipped a step along the way. As an example, take their history of NYC performances over the years – they started at the Wetlands Preserve in 1999 and stopped at every step along the way (Wetlands > Lion’s Den > Knitting Factory > Bowery Ballroom > Irving Plaza > Best Buy > SummerStage > Beacon) leading to Friday’s sell out of the band’s first-ever show at the iconic Beacon Theatre. The Brooklyn Bowl show gave Umphrey’s and their fans a chance to celebrate a milestone that 99.9% of bands never reach, 15 years together without killing each other.
[All Photos by Jeremy Smith]
Umphrey’s Brooklyn Bowl performance was announced just a few days before the show took place and sold out quicker than any show in the venue’s three-and-a-half year history. Ever the fan-friendly act, Umphrey’s made sure anyone who wanted to experience the show, as it happened, had that opportunity by offering a Pay-Per-View webcast via UMLive.net and a live simulcast on Sirius/XM’s Jam On channel. Early in the show UM guitarist Brendan Bayliss mentioned those at home when he explained that his infant son Roman was taking in his first Umphrey’s show through the live stream. Bayliss asked the crowd to say hello to Roman and most in the capacity crowd gladly obliged.
When it comes to the setlist, how does a band celebrate their 15th anniversary? Do you spend the majority of the show reliving the past and focusing on material you played at that first show or do you look towards the future? For Umphrey’s McGee the answer seemed to include a little from Column A and a little from Column B. The Chicago-based act’s first set contained three songs that had been debuted in the past two years as well as classic material and even a tune that predates the band. During the first set, those on hand were offered a taste of the many sounds Umphrey’s has experimented with – both in terms of jamming and songwriting – since their humble beginnings such as a jazzy interlude in Anchor Drops, a disco-meets-prog Comma Later excursion, UM’s version of DnB in the Blue Echo jam and a dance party friendly Bright Lights, Big City set closer that unexpectedly (both for the band and the fans) included a cover of Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.
The first set was an appetizer of sorts for a second set that would turn out to be the main course. By opening with the proggy opus Bridgeless and working their way into a fast-paced, more hard-nosed version of the gorgeous instrumental End of the Road found on 2006’s Safety In Numbers, Umphrey’s continued to highlight the stark contrast found between songs in their huge repertoire of originals. One of the heaviest songs Umphrey’s has ever written, Wizard Burial Ground, a metal-laden multi-part instrumental, was performed with impressive precision and led many in the crowd to bang their heads along with the music. It’s hard to believe the same band that created a song as heavy as Wizard Burial Ground is also responsible for a tune as pretty and catchy as August. This Brendan Bayliss-penned original was one of the first originals UM debuted back in 1998 and as usual featured a soaring, major-key jam that helped work the crowd into a frenzy.
When August was finally finished, 13 glorious minutes after it started, keyboardist Joel Cummins took to the mic and told the crowd the band would perform the first song they ever played way back on January 21st, 1998 at their debut gig. From there they started the long lost original Bob which was last performed on September 19th, 2003. About 20 seconds into the Bob bust out, the sextet suddenly stopped playing and the lights went out. After a few seconds of darkness, Bayliss explained that back at their debut performance the power went out during the first song they played which they took as a sign from the “lord above that we should never play that song again.”
Any disappointment at the Bob “fake out” was quickly forgotten when Umphrey’s kicked into their somewhat rare cover of Toto’s #1 hit from 1983 – Africa. Many in the crowd exploded with excitement as a singalong ensued. While there were a handful of fans who would’ve loved to have seen a full Bob, Africa appealed to the audience as a whole and only added to the celebratory vibe that was so prevalent on this night. The cover was a bit of a palate cleanser before two lengthy 15+ minute song suites that stand as the highlights of the show for this writer.
When The Triple Wide made its debut in early 2002 it was unlike anything Umphrey’s had written up until that point. It marked the entrance of more dance-friendly material that would become a major part of the group’s sound moving forward. The Triple Wide also serves as a showcase for the always evolving light work of Umphrey’s LD Jefferson Waful who, though he’d never say as much, continues to make a case as being the best in the business. A fun romp through the electro-tinged Triple Wide jam led to a drum duet between drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag. In a scene where bands take drum solos all the time, “drums” isn’t a frequently occurrence at Umphrey’s shows…thankfully. Surprisingly, out of the drum solo, the sextet worked their way into a debut performance of Tiny Cities Made of Ashes by Modest Mouse which was sung over a dance-jam before they finished The Triple Wide.
Umphrey’s finished the set with a song sandwich that combined two of the oldest originals in the band’s songbook: All In Time and Dear Lord. Perhaps the quintessential UM song, Bayliss put his heart and soul into every note he played and every word he sang during All In Time. Dear Lord – a beautiful instrumental that holds as special place in the band’s heart as it was performed by bassist Ryan Stasik, Cummins, Bayliss and original drummer Mike Mirro at a recital that predates the band by two months – was worked perfectly into the middle of All In Time as was a relentlessly peaking jam that served as a bridge to the end of AIT. Now, you’re not supposed to use “all” when describing something an audience does unless literally every person in the crowd does the action you’re describing, but when I say “all” of the crowd had their hands in the air in appreciation of the band towards the end of the show I mean it. This was friendly crowd that ate up every minute of the marathon performance.
When the sextet returned to the stage for their encore, Brooklyn Bowl owner Pete Shapiro was waiting for them with a birthday cake in hand to honor the occasion. UM then busted out their cover of Groove Holmes off the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head LP for the first time since November 2nd, 2006 (708 shows). Groove Holmes was yet another nod to the early days as it was a staple of the band’s repertoire in 1998. The quick instrumental led into the end of Bridgeless which was expected to bring the show to a close. However, Umphrey’s returned for a second encore with the fitting choice of Reelin’ In The Years by Steely Dan.
In just the six years we’ve been around, we’ve seen many bands come and go. Fifteen years in, Umphrey’s is at the top of their game and shows no signs of slowing down. The fanbase appears to be growing and they continue to move up spots on festival lineups and when it comes to the size of the venues the group plays. Umphrey’s appears to have learned the lessons that have done in many of their peers and are one of the more drama-free bands around. Will they last another 15 years or more? Only time will tell, Cummins isn’t getting any younger, but they are set up to reap the rewards of their hard work.