A Review: Umphrey's McGee (Columbus, OH)
Review By: Greg Molitor
Photos By: Jessica Pace
1. relative worth, merit, or importance…
What is the value of a musical performance? Is it merely the sum of the collection of notes, images, and conversations held during said performance, or is it more?
Value can be as difficult to define as it is to measure, but it is not a foreign concept for most. From my experience, individuals, even if they cannot objectify certain elements or themes within music, are often in-tune with what they enjoy and what they find to be less desirable. Value can be sensed naturally, and its exact definition is not necessary for the appreciation of music’s intricacies.
With my 50th Umphrey’s McGee show on the horizon, I felt like this was a more-than-appropriate set of questions to ask to both a larger scale and myself.
Fast forward to March 5th, 2010. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon, and BK, Jekisa, Zach Noob, and I have piled into my Saturn to make the trip to Columbus. The following drive was a triumphant one, due to the fact we were each able to secure UM Bowl tickets for next month’s extravaganza earlier that afternoon (check umbowl.com for more information). After arriving in Columbus, we met up with Naylor and Christina for pre-show burgers and drinks. I hadn’t seen Naylor in a few months, and it was a pleasure to reconnect with an old friend for a couple hours before the show.
As we made our way into the Newport Music Hall, the age and overall quality of the venue caught my eye. There’s no easy way to sugarcoat it…the Newport is in serious need of renovation. The place was a dump. We arrived around 8:15 to a mostly empty venue, and the opener, Ugly Suit, took the stage a few minutes later.
The Uglysuit comes from the same class of Rock & Roll as Akron/Family and Dr. Dog. Their sound was lo-fi and reverb heavy, which normally is the kind of sound that I don’t dig. I did, however, find them to be more entertaining than the contemporary bands they are trying to imitate. For me, the highlight of their set featured a sit-in by Umphrey’s McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins. If The Uglysuit tightened its sound, I think they are capable of capturing a loyal following if they haven’t already. Again, it’s not necessary the sound I am looking for in a band, but I can see the potential for others to really enjoy their music.
On a side note, most of The Uglysuit’s six members had ridiculously long hair. From the first note played, the bass player (who might have had the longest hair of them all) literally continued to head-bang the entire show. Hilarious!
As The Uglysuit was playing, a noticeable amount of people had arrived. By the time they were finished, the venue was closed to being packed. The crowd was young and energetic, much like most crowds I am accustomed to seeing at UM shows. Young crowds can be frustrating, and I’ve had especially tough luck in the state of Ohio. This crowd certainly wasn’t the most respectful, but it well within my tolerance range. At this point, I was ready for some UM!
A few minutes later, the lights dropped and the band made its way to the stage. The band’s arrival to the stage was accompanied by “The Olympic Theme Song”. I had never seen the band enter the stage to this accompanying music, and then I was informed by BK that they had done this a few days prior in Philadelphia. The band was warmly greeted by the anxious crowd, who seemed more than ready to get their faces rocked.
Set one started with “The Haunt”, an older tune that continues to be a mainstay in the band’s song rotation. “The Haunt” exemplifies uniqueness in Umphrey’s McGee’s song crafting and overall approach to making music...they simply do things other bands have not done in the past. Considering the band’s roots are based in the blues, this is not something that is easily done. The jam in “The Haunt” was one of the best of the show and segued into the opening notes of “Passing”, a slow, reflective rocker. I’ll be honest…this is not one of my favorite Umphrey’s McGee songs. It was not one of their best takes on the tune either. Halfway through the song, I noticed the band was a bit looser on this night than most other nights. For Umphrey’s McGee, I’ve noticed that the first couple songs are usually an indicator of how a show will unfold. I’m used to a bit more energy from the boys than what they were giving at this point of the show.
The next song, “1348”, is one of my favorite tunes from their newest album, Mantis. This version started off rockin’, but then abruptly stopped. What happened? The band then began to play the beginning notes to the tune “All Things Ninja”. “All Things Ninja” is a rarely played but adventurous tune. However, the band seemed lost while playing it. This was quite unfortunate after seeing two great versions of “All Things Ninja” previously (check out 05.25.2007 and 06.06.2008 for killer versions). After “All Things Ninja”, the band segued back into “1348” and finished the song. Personally, I think “1348” works best for the band as a set opener or closer, but I love the band for having the courage to try new things with their songs. I don’t, however, think the song is built to have a song sandwiched in-between two of its musical sections. The “1348” > “All Things Ninja” > “1348” sandwich came off as awkward and disjointed in Columbus.
The remainder of the set featured an enjoyable “August”, which was even more enjoyable for Zach Noob due to the fact it was his first electric version of the tune. “August” was followed by a fairly standard “Sociable Jimmy”, a tune I have heard a many times but still love. “Sociable Jimmy” featured an R&B inspired jam that UM likes to throw-in during their sets. I don’t have many complaints about an Umphrey’s McGee live show, but if I had to pick one, it would be that the band often plays the same teases from show to show. After seeing UM fifty times, I’ve heard both “Xxplosive” and “Stranglehold” teases about ten times each.
“Sociable Jimmy” then segued into “Sweetness”, a lovely instrumental piece. The band then segued into “Booth Love”. “Booth Love”, perhaps channeling a bit of Steely Dan and Isaac Hayes, is a relatively newer tune which I had not seen before live. The song is very danceable and melodically pleasing, and I see much potential in its future. The final song of the first set was a Smashing Pumpkins’ cover, “Cherub Rock”. “Cherub Rock” isn’t a favorite cover of mine, but the band has played the hell out of it each time I’ve heard it played. This time was no exception as the version kicked ass and featured the most energy of the first set by far. After a mediocre first set by a band that is capable of much more, one could only hope the energy seen during “Cherub Rock” could translate to a better second set.
After the set, I waded through all the spun cookies so I could meet up with my crew. When we met, they shared the same sentiments I did about the first set. The band was clearly capable of more. However, I’m not sure if it was necessarily due to a lack of effort; the band looked like they were trying, but so far, the magic wasn’t happening this night to the degree we’ve come to expect from Umphrey’s McGee.
After thirty minutes or so, the band returned to the stage for set two. UM kicked off the second set with “40’s Theme”, the band’s funky ode to chicken wings and malt liquor. Solos from guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger pushed the band to soaring new heights, culminating in one of the biggest musical peaks of the show. Get some! The next tune, “Push the Pig”, was disappointing. The band played the composed segments sufficiently, but the band struggled to take the song anywhere interesting during the improvisational movement. This was especially tough for me because I heard a wonderful version of this song just a few shows prior (12/30/2009). At this point, I figured the band was just having an off-night. I’ve had disappointing nights at concerts before, so this wasn’t anything new to me. It was time to squeeze as much out of this evening as possible.
Then, from seemingly out-of-nowhere, I heard my name from the stage.
"This next song goes out to Greg Molitor, this is the 50th show he's been to. Greg, if you come to 50 more you'll get a private audience with Joel."
“Holy shit! Did that really just happen?!?!...”
Apparently, my good friend Justin, aka ‘the J-Man’, wrote a letter to each member of Umphrey’s McGee then delivered them personally after their recent show in Syracuse, NY. In the letter, he spoke of my love for the band and asked them to play “Hurt Bird Bath” for my 50th show. This is one of the most thoughtful and appreciated gifts anyone has ever given me, and I’d like to thank him publicly again for such an amazing gesture. Space in all our faces!
After congratulations from surrounding friends, I regained composure and returned my focus to the stage. After the personal dedication, the band dove straight into a nasty “Hurt Bird Bath” > “Walletsworth” > “Hurt Bird Bath”. “Hurt Bird Bath” featured a freshly-worked “Time” tease. The band had clearly put pre-show time and effort into arranging the “Hurt Bird Bath” sandwich as segues within this sequence were tighter than any previously attempted during the evening. There was one awkward approach when returning to the main theme, but overall, “Hurt Bird Bath:” was very special. Words cannot describe the feeling.
After “Hurt Bird Bath”, UM busted into “Utopian Fir”. “Utopian Fir” is an Umphrey’s classic that covers many different musical genres. After the first composed part of “Utopian Fir” and with a little help from some Jake Cinninger shred-action, the band segued into Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher”. This was my favorite tune of the night as the band’s energy reached its highest point of the evening. I’m not a big Van Halen fan, but “Hot for Teacher” is their best song in my opinion. This version was rude, rowdy, and straight-up kicked ass. The most impressive part of the performance was Kris Myers and his ability to rock David Lee Roth’s vocal parts while slammin’ the shit out of his drums. Myers, who is my favorite musician in UM, was having an off-night in Columbus. I hope his performance on this tune was as redeeming for himself as it was for me.
After the Van Halen cover, UM jumped back into “Utopian Fir” for a standard finish. At this point, I had finally found a spot in the venue where the sound was acceptable. Thankfully, it was just-in-time to hear bassist Ryan Stasik drive home the deep tones found in the reggae-influenced finish to “Utopian Fir”. “The Bottom Half” followed and proved to be the second set closer. “The Bottom Half” was played adequately, but featured nothing that could be considered innovative or groundbreaking. At this point, it looked as if the band really wanted to be done playing, which was unfortunate.
For the encore, the band busted out “Miss Tinkle’s Overture”. Again, the band appeared tired and not completely into the performance. There was one giant peak during the jam that was pretty damn satisfying, but the band still felt out-of-sync for most of the performance. It’s frustrating to see your favorite band give up on one of their best songs, but what can you do?
Melodically, Umphrey’s McGee is a three-headed monster. If Joel, Jake, or Brendan is having an off-night, it can be difficult for the band to communicate musically. This night might have been one of those nights. After seeing them numerous times, I can usually catch a vibe within the first couple songs of the show. If they don’t have it in the first couple songs, they usually don’t bring it to the best of their abilities.
Don’t get me wrong; there were some excellent spots of music during the show. “Cherub Rock” and “Hot for Teacher” both held their own as amazing, spot-on covers while my first “Booth Love” and the jam from “The Haunt” were quite enjoyable. But the best moment, obviously, was when the band, my favorite, dedicated “Hurt Bird Bath” to me. Unbelievable. It may not have been the top-notch musical experience I have come to expect from an Umphrey’s McGee show, it certainly was one of the most spiritual, memorable, and important nights of my life.
So what is value? Is it merely the sum of the collection of notes, images, and conversations held during said performance, or is it more?
It is certainly more. After seeing Umphrey’s McGee in Columbus, I can better appreciate the way life builds on itself. How it all comes together…I’ll never understand. But it is certainly more.
Umphreys McGee Live at Newport Music Hall on March 5, 2010.
The Haunt > Passing, 1348 > All Things Ninja > 1348, August, Sociable Jimmy$ > Sweetness > Booth Love, Cherub Rock
40's Theme$$, Push the Pig* > "Jimmy Stewart"** > Hurt Bird Bath% -> Walletsworth > Hurt Bird Bath, Utopian Fir > Hot for Teacher, Utopian Fir > The Bottom Half
Miss Tinkle's Overture%%
The Uglysuit opened
$ with Xxplosive jam
$$ with I Keep Forgettin' tease
** with lyrics
% with Time (Pink Floyd) tease
%% with Abacab tease