Side Project Spotlight: Umphrey’s McGee
Words & Photos By Nicholas Stock (phatphlogblog.blogspot.com)
We will continue looking at obscure jam bands that deserve a nod, but we will also be starting a series called “Side Project Spotlight”. This week, we are checking a few of the sideprojects from jam stalwart Umphrey’s McGee. The members of have been involved in a wide array of different projects including the OM Trio, Ali Baba’s Tahini, Drop Q, The Omega Moos, North Indian Allstars, 30db, OHMphrey and several more. For this article, we will be looking at just a few:
Ali Baba’s Tahini
Ali Baba’s Tahini was Jake Cinninger’s original band who was tightly linked to Umphrey’s early days. They played shows together in South Bend, Indiana, where both groups originated, releasing their debut album, Hopi Champa, in 1999. They have an eclectic sound playing everything from jazz to heavy hitting rock tunes, all accentuated by Jake’s signature licks. These guys are incredible and it’s easy to see why they were a forerunner to UM. I got a chance to see them play a Summer Camp this year. I have wanted to hear these guys ever since I first learned they were regularly playing together again beginning a few years ago. They obviously don’t tour extensively, so having them on the bill on Thursday was a real treat for me. And honestly they sounded like a band formed by Jake. It was like his raw gritty guitar times five. Here is the setlist from their Facebook Page:
SET: Strollin, Got Your Milk, Vegetables, Veil, Running Down A Dream*, Aramdillo, Zero, Poster Prose, Carnival Chronicles, Second, Bikes,
*Tom Petty Cover dedicated to Brendan Bayliss
“Got Your Milk” along with the Cinninger’s Beatbox vs. Wavy Dave’s Mouth Harp breakdown were the real highlights of the set. Also, the Petty cover was spot on. Overall I found the Ali Baba’s Tahini to be a fun way to get my feet wet at Summer Camp. Here is a video I took from the pit:
North Indiana All Stars
The North Indiana All Stars are a jam band super group with Kris, Jake, and Joel from Umphrey’s McGee, with Tony Franklin from The Firm and Willie Waldman from Banyan. Willie and the Umphrey’s guys all hail from Indiana, hence their name that may or may not be a subtle nod to North Mississippi Allstars. They base their shows on improvisational playing with the rhythm section of Tony and Kris pounding out the path. It’s an interesting mix that gives Jake and Joel plenty of room to musically soar. I had the chance to catch them in January of 2009.
The lineup, with their varying backgrounds, really allows for a mesh of music that was both dynamic and powerful. Tony Franklin drives the bus; he is a man who has played with huge array of musicians including David Gilmour and just knows his chops. That night, Umphrey's McGee played an entire show at the Fillmore, hopped in a cab, drove to Cervantes’ and played two more sets. Incredible... and it shows a dedication that I have always appreciated from UM. They took on a similar format to a Banyan show but with a completely different vibe, and a distinctly UM sound. With the inclusion of Jake and Joel, it seemed like they were just there to jam and have a good time. I was thoroughly impressed with the musical meld that was created onstage by a group that really only gets to play together maybe a handful of times a year. I had a great time as I always do whenever I see Willie Waldman. Getting to see this lineup was truly icing on the cake of a fantastic weekend in Denver.
Rounding our discussion of our Umphrey’s McGee side projects, the third and possibly my favorite group is 30db. 30db is a collaboration between Brendan Bayliss and Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jeff Austin. Brought together through the loss of the respective relationships, they play as if they were kindred spirits. Most often, the 30db performance is just Bayliss and Austin acoustic, which is what I saw at Summer Camp. However their tour to support their album, One Man Show, was so much more. With a lineup that included Cody Dickinson from North Mississippi Allstars, Eric Thorin on Bass, and Nick Forrester of E Town fame, they created an amazing live experience. I made it out to their show at The Fox Theater in May of 2010.
There are those shows that you see coming up and you buy tickets months in advance. You eagerly anticipate the arrival of the event and pull your hair out in the interim, and 30db was like that for me. I had been waiting for months to catch this jam band super group was truly excited when the big day finally arrived. With recent collaborations such as The Contribution and of course The Everyone Orchestra, it seems that members of certain longstanding jam groups are looking to other musicians in their community for inspiration. In the case of 30db, it was more a means of reconcilement and moving on that brought Brendan Bayliss and Jeff Austin together. Both Bayliss and Austin were going through a divorce and they found comfort by playing and writing music together. They added Eric Thorin (Tony Furtado, Drew Emmitt Band) on bass, Nick Forster (Hot Rize, ETown) on lead guitar, and Cody Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars, Hill Country Revue) on drums. With this much talent in the room, the powerhouse jam was inevitable.
After the opener, I got some air and then headed back in for 30db. Now, I had seen Austin and Bayliss together a couple of times, most notably when they opened for an Umphrey's show a couple of years back at The Fillmore. (In fact I found a literal treasure trove of early 30db collaborations on the umprheaks board. Feel free to peruse it for yourself.)Those were acoustic, downtempo affairs, whereas I would now be seeing them with a fully realized album of new material and a powerful assemblage of musicians to back them up. If you have listened to One Man Show, then you know that it sounds pretty much like you would expect a collaboration between Bayliss and Austin to sound. You have Brendan's prog-rock voice juxtaposed against the twang of Jeff's mandolin. Simple enough, but for months I had pondered whether or not they would stick to the album or just go ahead and rock our faces off. I'm here to say they chose the latter. They opened up with the safe but expected title track to One Man Show. Here is the rest of the setlist:
30db SET: One Man Show, Susannah, Lick #6, Don't Let Me Down, Automatic, Backbone, What The Night Brings, Liar, New Liberty, Good Times, One More, Get In Line, Always Up
ENCORE: Return Item*, Backfire*, Instrumetal in D*, Jesus Grant Me Mercy, It's All Over Now Baby Blue, Grave
* Just Jeff and Brendan
They started slowly but built nicely with “Susannah”. Nick Forster started to show his colors during “Lick #6” and in my opinion he was the MVP of the evening. He bounced between electric and pedal steel guitars and simply wailed all night long. Austin informed us we would be hearing a lot of new music and a few classics before leading the band into a bluesy version of The Beatles’ “Don't Let Me Down. The room seemed to just explode with energy at this point. I even found myself gyrating in ways that would frighten small children. Thorin was shining through on “Automatic” with his grumbling bass lines. Austin's mando and Forster's slide danced during “What The Night Brings”. Bayliss had solid vocals on the rock-a-billy-ish “Liar”. Cody Dickinson was just in the pocket for the entire show, especially during “New Liberty”. Brendan and Jeff busted into a playful version of Modest Mouse's “Good Times”. This was unexpected and really a ton of fun. The entire band just tore it up on “One More”. They brought back some of that country-prog twang on “Get In Line”, and “Always Up” was a pleasant way to end the set. (It was also the first song Austin and Bayliss wrote together and really the only one I remember them playing together previously.)
The encore was like a truncated second set with Austin and Bayliss coming out solo to get things started. They played a very pretty and melancholy “Return Item”, and “Backfire” started slow but became a mandolin eruption towards the end. “Instrumental In D” was a beautiful and delicate jam. The rest of the band returned to the stage for the rocking spiritual “Jesus Grant Me Mercy”. They brought the house down with their version of “Baby Blue” and closed the show with “Grave”. It was such a great night of music. I was happy to see 30db after a long wait, and I can honestly say it was well worth it. Austin and Bayliss have assembled a great band, and live, they really shake the dust off of some the slower tunes on the album. I can only hope that they don't wait too long to do it again.