Umphrey’s McGee Kicks off 2017 Tour with Three Nights in Atlanta
Words by Ben Gartenstein
Photos and recordings by Nathan Leslie of NSL Media
This past weekend, Umphrey’s McGee kicked off the new year with a three night run of shows at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, GA. Known for their unique blend of styles and tendency towards bouts of group improvisation, the Chicago sextet utilizes a collection of hand signals to coordinate their improvisational efforts, hoping to avoid the noodly cliché often associated with the jam band world. As they are known to do, the band did not repeat any songs over the course of the weekend’s 6 sets, instead keeping the crowd on their toes with 48 unique songs.
The Umphrey’s McGee family are no strangers to historical converted church of rock and roll that is the Tabernacle, having rung in the new year twice at the venue, with 4 nights in 2012 and 5 in 2014, and that experience showed as they quickly settled into their holiday weekend.
Friday night started off on a danceable note, opening the show with “Bad Friday,” which can be heard on their 2015 release The London Sessions. The first set progressed through a number of styles: the up-beat reggae of “FF” and the slinky funk of improvisation-laden “Last Man Swerving” (a song which had not been played in nearly two years,) before settling into heavier territory with a back-to-back onslaught of the instrumental “Wizard Burial Ground” segueing directly into tongue-in-cheek distorted vocals of metal tune “Sludge and Death.” The second set featured the first covers of the run in Mark Knopfler’s “We’re Going to War” and Hendrix’s “Power of Soul.”
Night two opened with the brand new progressive rocker North Route, which features a solo piano intro from keyboardist Joel Cummins. The song, which was debuted over their New Years’ run in Chicago, has a tone reminiscent of early King Crimson. From there they went into a 16-minute rendition of the title track from their 2014 album Similar Skin that included an extended section of improvisation, moving back and forth between jazzy and riff based jamming, as directed by guitarist Jake Cinninger.
The main body of Saturday’s two set show covered more of what UM fans might consider the ‘hits’, spending less time on jamming and more featuring lead singer Brendan Bayliss. The sold out crowd was particularly receptive to their second-set-closing rendition of Tool’s “Forty Six & 2”; this was the first time they have played the song since November of 2014.
For many of Umphrey’s McGee’s improv-seeking fans, the third and final night of the run was the standout. The first set averaged about 10 minutes per song and covered the full breadth of the band’s catalog, from classics such as “2nd Self” and “Utopian Fir” to another brand new song from over the new year, “Cut Off,” which featured drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag in a dueling outro solo. To many, the second set of Sunday night’s show was the real winner of the weekend.
The pair of “Cemetery Walk” and “Cemetery Walk II” off of 2009’s Mantis lead into the Led Zeppelin classic, “The Song Remains the Same.” The band closed out the final set of the holiday weekend with a nearly 40-minute segment of nonstop music chock full of jams. They dedicated their final encore of the run, “Pay the Snucka,” to Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, who passed away earlier in the day.
Over their years of heavy touring, the musicians and crew of Umphrey’s McGee have perfected their art. They have learned to take inspiration from each other at all possible moments, as evidenced by the fact that bass player Ryan Stasik, who often takes a back seat in such a guitar driven band, was the creative springboard for many of the spontaneous ideas throughout the weekend. The crew is no different. Front-of-House engineer Chris Mitchell and Lighting Director Jefferson Waful help to make sure that the aural and visual experience of Umphrey’s McGee is as bombastic as always.
Umphrey’s will continue to tour through the next few months; rolling back through the south east over President’s Day weekend in February when they play three nights in Asheville, NC, including two nights at the Exploreasheville.com Arena with Greensky Bluegrass.
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All upcoming concert information can be found at www.umphreys.com.
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