Umphrey's McGee & Greensky Bluegrass 2.17.17 Arena
Asheville, NC

Words by Taylor Hall
Photos by J. Scott Shrader

For the past few years, Umphrey's McGee has played in Asheville on or around Valentine’s Day, and it’s become a tradition. Last year, Umphrey's sealed the tradition's fate by teaming up with the Arena to host the first annual Blue Ridge Rockway. This year the band expanded on their ideas and added a third night at the Orange Peel. They also invited rising rock stars Greensky Bluegrass to share a double headliner bill with them.

Greensky opened the night with a song from their most recent effort titled "Windshield." This track sounds like The Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons got together to make a bluegrass love child. This band is as tight as they come, and they offer a high powered light show seldom seen on the bluegrass circuit. The band then dropped into a beautiful rendition of "Living Over," letting the subtle cries of the mandolin, dobro, and banjo drip into the atmosphere and peel away the pain from the audience’s consciousness.

The band followed up with their first traditional track of the night, "Letter to Seymour." This one is short and sweet, and is just a good ol' fashioned bluegrass jig. Next up was special guest Joel Cummins of Umphrey's McGee joining the band on piano. Paul Hoffman, the charismatic, defacto leader of Greensky was sure to let us know that Joel was of the very finest bluegrass piano players in the land, though it’s not a hard task to accomplish. The band would follow suit and jump into an original titled "In Control." This song is a beautiful melody paired with captivating lyrics that evoke feelings of inspiration and hope. Adding Joel to this song really gave it a Bruce Hornsby vibe that set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Working off the high note left on stage from Joel, the band busted into New Grass Revival's "Can't Stop Now." The band took this one all the way to the edge of psychedelia, with Paul Hoffman's voice and Anders Beck's dobro sharing licks until Paul sunk into The Isley Brothers "Shout," bringing the arena to their feet as they slowly slid back into "Can't Stop Now." The band would drop into "Wings for Wheels" and "Miss September," before going into a personal favorite of mine titled "Worried about the Weather." The sound of Anders' steel dobro is so magical and uplifting, almost transporting your mind back to a simpler time of hard work and honest values. This is some very powerful stuff, and the message the band is able to convey through their instrumentation is bar none. The boys wrapped up their evening with a stellar cover of "Atlantic City" by Bruce Springsteen. Greensky was magical and left the arena buzzing for what was to come next...two sets of Umphrey's McGee.

Umphrey's jumped in head first, treating the anxious crowd to one of their signature opening tracks, "Bathing Digits," before seamlessly bridging into a song first played during New Year's 2007, "Rocker Part 2." Bayliss' approach and tone on this track has Rush written all over it, perhaps a nod to what the band had in store for the next night. The perfect stew of progressive riffs and catchy melodies, the crowd immediately joined in for one of many sing-a-longs the band had planned for the night. The mold of "Rocker 2" morphed into a brutal head-nodding riff that instantly cleared the tension in the room and brought sweet release of smiles and raised beers as far as the eye could see.

Up next, Umphrey's delved deeper into their magical bag of prog tracks, pulling out a spacey "Nothing Too Fancy." The song began with Umphrey’s moving their sound from rock to a more ambient prog breakbeat, featuring an airy synthesizer and an almost industrial approach to guitar. Soon the band would begin to summon the opening licks to "Nothing Too Fancy," reminding the crowd it was time to dance their asses off. This version would feature a Zappaesque guitar attack, before falling back into the songs breakdown, which consists of playful prog guitar runs and 80's metal riffs. The band would soothe the crowd back into the airy synths and bubbly guitar tones, transforming the jam into the anthem of "Stranglehold" before taking the jam into dark prog heaven. The band kicked right into another sing-a-long classic from the album Mantis titled "Spires," which features the inspirational lyrics "If I Fall, I'll Land up."

Gapping the bridge of the set, the band started up my favorite new song, "Upward." This song is just beautiful; tears filled my eyes as I contemplated the things I should do differently in my life, and the direction I needed to head to ensure the quality of life I envision for myself and for everyone around me. This is some seriously magical songwriting. The guitar solo at the end is a barn burner, stirring up all the emotions of happiness and hope. Following order, "Atmosfarag" made an appearance in a setlist for the first time in 69 shows. Moods would shift as the band headed into weird prog industrial territory. Kris Meyers takes this one home with some beautiful fills. The jam for this version would be encapsulated by smooth breakbeat drumming and jazzy instrumentation, making music more akin to Hiromi Uehara'S "Kung Fu World Champion" than a jamband. To wrap up the set, the band fired off the classic "Der Bluten Kat," as the crowd belted out the lovable and playful lyrics. This song really shows the band’s mastery of their craft; spacing the version out to nineteen minutes filled with brutal drum fills and sick riffs. This song is a great example of the band’s slogan genre style, "improg." Nothing was off limits here as the band broke into some beautifully intricate guitar work reminiscent of Adrian Belew, which melded into some rockin' classical styled riffs before dropping the bus off into deep funk territory. This solo was wild, seeing the band break into a two guitar attack in unison and blowing the lid off their instruments.

For the second set, I decided to move a bit closer and set up camp about ten rows back Joel side. The set would start with an old Ali Baba's Tahini fan favorite "40's Theme," an onslaught of funk and hip hop. This one featured some beautiful Rhodes work from Joel, a mesmerizing bass line from Stasik, and truly uplifting guitar work from both Brendan and Jake. Yet again, the band went into another Ali Baba's Tahini classic "Resolution." Here we have the band soak into familiar territory, offering a very "Harry Hood" styled jam. All the beauty and technicality we have grown to love from jambands was on full display here. The second jam was comprised of a slinky bass line and high driving synth work that would make the late Keith Emerson and Greg Lake proud. This song is a great example of Umphrey's versatility and ability to master different variations of jams within the same song structure.

Riding off the energy in the room, the band showcased another classic, "Phil's Farm," which is some form of whacky bluegrass and prog combination. Jake put on a full spectacle of his ability to mimic Roy Buchanan's chickin pickin, or take you to a dim lit, smoky L. A. club seeing Randy Rhoads rip a solo. The music found itself taking a strange turn into the depths of space with eerie, scattered sounds of free jazz, before finding its groove and locking into a direction to finish on a high note. What the band had in place next I don't think anyone in the venue was ready for, as they dropped into the pits of hell by playing the opening notes of "Black Sabbath," signaling to us that Asheville was "the chosen one". Right into "War Pigs" they went, as they invited Anders Beck and Paul Hoffman on stage to join them in rocking the house down. Paul Hoffman did an absolute bang up job of bringing the prince of darkness to life for all of us to enjoy. Electricity was pummeling off the stage, riff after riff. Watching Anders and Jake have a guitar battle for the ages will be something I'll never forget. It truly was one of those "wow" moments that makes going to shows so special for all of us. Looking around as the lights hit all whites and yellows, the crowd was going into an absolute frenzy. You could feel the endorphins naturally pulsating through your body, taking you to a spiritual plane of reality and existence, right there before your eyes.

Keeping with the spirit of the set, Umphrey's kept it old school, treating the crowd to another sing-a-long prog metal showdown, "2x2." This was the perfect "show stopper" song, taking the crowd on one last deep musical journey around the sun with crazy synths, punchy bass lines, monstrous drum fills, and strange yet beautiful guitar noodling. These things are the essence of Umphrey's. A smorgasbord of musical influences and abilities, cultivated in the minds of these Midwest cult icons. Fittingly so, the band encored with a song they debuted at New Year's 2013, "Bad Friday;" opening and closing the show with songs debuted on previous New Years Eve's, and adding in the double entendre that it was Friday night. The band left everyone on a high note with the catchy lyrics of "take what you need" and a nice little jam.

Umphrey's McGee heads west from here, before circling back around through the Midwest and down to Florida. Greensky is slated to stay in the South for a bit, before heading to the Midwest and Western regions.

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