When I was but a wee little fourth grader in Saint Paul, MN I worked on a group research project about a place that I had never seen and, as far as I was concerned, was too far away and too wild to possibly exist in the same universe. Yosemite National Park in California was about as distant to me as the surface of what was (at the time) considered to be the ninth planet. Now, fourteen years later, Pluto has been demoted to a planetoid and I have visited this far away land of Yosemite for the first time. And friends, the report I have to give you now is that Yosemite is every bit as amazing as the fact that a bunch of scientists can just get together and cancel a planet at whim.
I made the four hour drive out of San Francisco with several members of what had become my "running crew" over the course of the last week of Umphrey's McGee tour. We had managed to score ourselves one of the on-site cabins at the Evergreen Lodge in Groveland, CA. The convenience of this did not sink in until we arrived and discovered that "on-site" meant it was all of one hundred yards from the front door to the festival entrance. The car I was traveling in arrived a day later than our friends. The delay was largely caused by the raging Umphrey's McGee show that myself and my photographer had flown down to LA to see the night before. Although it meant missing some good bands on the Thursday line-up and even the first couple on Friday, it was well worth the trip.
Las Tortugas is probably the smallest overnight music festival I have ever attended. I don't have an official attendance count, but I heard numbers ranging from 600-1100 including staff and bands. Needless to say this was a very intimate setting. The Evergreen Lodge consists of a collection of five or so buildings grouped together and about a hundred cabins of various sizes spread out into the surrounding woods. The surrounding woods were also interspersed with small tent villages set up by those festi-goers either not fortunate enough to have gotten a reservation or trying to save a few dollars. I applaud the campers, as the late October chill was quite strong up in the mountains. There were three stages; the Terrapin Big Top main stage was set up in a tent between The Tavern and a small, single room building called Tuolomne Hall, which housed a stage smaller than Terrapin but bigger than the Tavern. We arrived on Friday in time to catch Poor Man's Whiskey's first set of the day in Tuolomne Hall.
Friday: Poor Man's Whiskey is a tight-knit little bluegrass group. They recently released and have been touring under their Dark Side Of The Moonshine album, a take on Pink Floyd's 1973 psychedelic masterpiece. Although I'd recently heard of the album this was my first exposure to the songs. I can safely say I was impressed by the performance, enough to pick up a copy after the show.
I wandered on over to The Tavern, a permanent bar structure on site at the Evergreen Lodge which houses a small stage, attracted primarily by the cheerful yet eclectic music coming from inside. My schedule informed me that this was the Dun Four. I only caught two or three of their songs but it was enough for me to make a mental note to track them down when I got back. I recommend checking them out if they show up in your neighborhood.
At seven o'clock I walked the fifteen feet from The Tavern into the Terrapin Big Top to catch The Mother Hips, a group that has become one of my favorite all-time rock bands in the past two years. Hailing from Sacramento, they have a solid blues rock feel to their tunes while throwing in liberal amounts of NorCal guitar noise and tripped-out fuzz distortion. While I wouldn't call them a jam band per say, their songs do contain a fair amount of soloing and improvisational work. The Hips are first and foremost a rock band, however, and that's exactly what they did for the next hour and fifteen minutes. I went and picked up a copy of their new album Pacific Dust at the merch table, my face splitting grin eliciting a chuckle from the woman behind the table. She was also a fan. I can't say enough about The Mother Hips, but because I'll get an opportunity to continue my praises in the Saturday review section I'll move ahead for now.
It was time to head back to the cabin for a little dinner and Umphrey's Pre-Gaming so I purchased some phenomenal pesto pasta from the gourmet kitchen and strolled on home. This meant missing Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk and Blue Turtle Seduction, but life is about choices.
Fast Forward to 12:30 am Umphrey's took the stage with their usual swagger, looking prepared for the two hour marathon that lay ahead of them. I, however, was starting to feel the drowsy effects that drinking heavily for nine hours can have on one's system. I stayed through the first hour of the show, long enough to catch my only Triple Wide of the tour. I expended the last of my energy dancing my a$$ off to the heavy beat that pulsates throughout my favorite Umphrey's track and staggered back to the cabin to rest up for what would surely an even longer day tomorrow, one I was determined to stay awake for.
Saturday: Having donned my Gunslinger Halloween attire after a breakfast of cold cereal and warm PBR the next afternoon, I set out at 4:00 pm for the musical stylings of CounterClarkWise in The Tavern. They were a fun jam group in the same vein as Tea Leaf Green (which is not surprising when you consider that Josh Clark plays with both). Also playing in this time slot was Ten Mile Tide, conventiently located less than five minutes away in Tuolomne Hall. After about half an hour I found myself watching Tide and enjoying it thoroughly. Both bands are strong in their own right and good warm up music for a big festi day.
Next up were Hot Buttered Rum String Band and Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers, in the Big Top and Tavern respectably. Hot Buttered Rum took the stage wearing costumes that looked like a kitten had gotten into a big ball of string and proceeded to boogie down in their own special bluegrass way. Its always a foot stomping good time with HBR and this was no exception. We all got down. I couldn't quite still my attention, however, and spent a good deal of time wandering back and forth between the hoedown and the Tavern. The Gramblers are essentially a toned down version of The Mother Hips featuring front man Tim Bluhm's wife Nicki on beautiful vocals, soft and sweet. While they don't appeal to me as much as the Hips (gimme less talk, more rock), they were still a good contrast to the flurry of strings outside.
After my conflicted interests left their respective stages, I stuck around in the tavern to hear Newfangled Wasteland. This was a funky riff-based Beck cover band, which sounds strange but was a hell of a lot of fun to dance to. I listened in a little bit on the Pimps Of Joytime, as I had heard very good things about them, but was not very impressed by their performance. I returned to Newfangled Wasteland in time to catch a rocking rendition of Where It's At, and was very pleased.
The remainder of the evening featured a nonstop hard-hitting lineup. Blue Turtle Seduction took the main stage to a circus of hooting and hollering. I was blown away by the rock-based bluegrass that they laid upon our skulls for the next hour. People had been talking them up to me all weekend but I would still have to say that their show was the biggest surprise of my weekend. I immediately regretted having missed them the previous evening and made up for it by boogieing down twice as hard.
The Mother Hips followed in Tuolomne Hall next door. When they started there were probably about fifty people in the empty looking room. When they finished, the room was packed to capacity and spilled out into the big top. Tim Bluhm was dressed in a Man-With-No-Name Clint Eastwood costume (that put my own gunslinger costume to shame, I might add) and shredding guitar with the no-bullshit mentality of that fabled screen hero. This show was possibly even better than the previous night's but it is hard to say. If anything, the intimacy of the room made it seem more exciting to me. I reiterate: if you haven't heard the Mother Hips, do yourself a favor and go pick up their new album Pacific Dust. It won't disappoint, and it may just save Rock and Roll in the process.
I rolled right out of the Hips show into the Terrapin Big Top for the weekend's main event: the second of the now infamous Umphrey's McGee Halloween Mash-Up shows. The band was introduced to the stage by their manager wearing his mash-up costume, the Refereefer (but not before calling a foul on the crowd "for holding...marijuana"). Guitarist Jake Cinninger was George Harrison Ford (as Han Solo); bassist Ryan Stasik was Brett Michael Jackson; lead guitarist Brendan Bayliss was Capt. Kirk Hammett; keyboardist Joel Cummins was Dirty Harry Caray; drummer Kris Myers was Payne Stewart Copeland; and percussionist Andy Farag was the Wizard of Ozzie Guillen. It made for one hell of an entertaining show.. The music was great, but nothing compares to Beatles/Han Solo and Metallica/Tiberius Kirk battling for my soul with guitars. I would have just given it to Han Solo, but that was before I knew Kirk could shred. This was clearly a well rehearsed pair of sets. As you can see from the set list below, the show was heavily laden with teases and covers. Rather than go through the inane task of detailing every twist and turn, I'll hit the highlights and encourage you to download the show for yourself. Jajunk opener with Smooth Criminal/Heartbreaker jam was very exciting. Jajunk is a song I've heard many times and can be a little repetitive for me. Right out of the gate the band was reminding us that this would not be just another show (for those of us who had gotten past their ridiculous outfits). Despite this, the first set was mostly straightforward. There was a little jamming, a little bit of mashing, but for the most part it was clear they were saving the big guns for round two. The Sweet Sunglasses closer was every bit as cool as it looks on paper, with Dirty Harry Caray throwing down some serious synth work. I didn't actually catch the MGMT riff until a listened to the UMlive recording but it is definitely there, creeping just below the surface. As first set ended, we headed back to the cabin to regroup before the grand finale. Second set was an explosion of pure energy. The Jazz Odyssey into Nothing Too Fancy got everyone all worked up, and within the first five minutes to boot! Night Gambler was an entertaining discobeat version of the classic "Know when to hold 'em/know when to fold 'em" tune. Bill Kruetzmann did indeed sit in on Professor Wormborg, although I'm not entirely sure he knew what he was getting himself into on that one. The alternating 4/4-7/4 time signature is one hell of a trick to pop on someone. Land of Wappy was fantastic and loud. I again danced my a$$ off and noted that I had indeed made the right decision in coming to Yosemite for Halloween. The encore closer made the show for me though. From the vocal harmony intro to Queen's Fat Bottomed Girls to the raging guitar solo in Led Zeppelin's Good Times, Bad Times, this song made my entire tour worthwhile. I'll never look at Nemo the same way again, that's for sure. When I think about what I saw and the fact that I shared it with less than a thousand people, I get goosebumps. This could easily be my favorite Umphrey's show. We'll see if they can't top it at New Year's in Chicago this December though...
Papa Mali and his band (featuring Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kruetzman) were the late night act following Umphrey's. It's an age old formula that usually comes out sounding pretty good: take one retired member of the Grateful Dead, add a couple of weathered hippies and a crowd of people on psychedelics...BAM! Instant jam-band with a justification to play as many Dead tunes as they see fit. Don't get me wrong, the music was pretty good and I've got no problem dancing to the Grateful Dead all night (and they did play until 7:00 am) but I happen to know that Papa Mali has some pretty good tunes of his own. I wouldn't have minded a few more original tunes, that's all. I called it a night sometime before the sun came up and slept like the dead. Gratefully.
Sunday: The last day of the festival was short and sweet for me. After several loud disputes about whether or not daylight savings time had gone into effect, which was directly related to whether or not breakfast was still being served (it had and was), we grumbled our way down to the food court for some miracle eggs, bacon, and french toast. I packed up my gear and prepared for Josh Clark's Guitarmageddon, the guitar-laden jamband supergroup that plays as a different band each show. They came on as AC/DC this time, and proceeded to rock our socks off. By the time they finished their set with Highway to Hell, there were four blazing guitarists on stage creating by far the loudest sonic assault of the weekend. As Josh Clark explained, this is really the only way to recreate how AC/DC sounds without actually being AC/DC. I'll take his word for it.
Sadly, it was then time for me to head back to San Francisco to catch a plane back to Minneapolis to go back to my real job. The end of Left Coast UmphWeen RageTour and the imminent return to reality. But as all things must come to an end, so must they begin again. I sit here in the cold and snow and wait patiently for New Year's Eve to approach. I'll see all you Umphreaks in Chicago. Cheers, Doctor Frog
Umphrey's McGee at Las Tortugas Festival, Groveland CA - 10/30/2009 One Set Pay the Snucka, Andy's Last Beer > The Bottom Half, White Man's Moccasins, The Triple Wide* > Syncopated Strangers, When the World Is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around, Utopian Fir > Glory^ > Utopian Fir > Masoka Tanga > Utopian Fir, Plunger Encore Women Wine and Song, Partyin' Peeps Notes * with Rhiannon teases ^ with Ivan Neville on keys
Umphrey's McGee at Las Tortugas Festival, Groveland CA - 10/31/2009 Set One JaJunk% > 2x2& -> Q*Bert& > 2x2, Cemetery Walk, Padgett's Profile, All In Time%%, Cemetery Walk II, Sweet Sunglasses* Set Two Jazz Odyssey > Nothing Too Fancy > Hangover > Night Gambler** > Nothing Too Fancy, FF -> Professor Wormbog^, JaJunk, Mulche's Odyssey, Land of Wappy$ Encore 40's Theme, Nemo's Fat Bottomed Good Times$$ Notes % with Smooth Criminal > Heartbreaker jam & with Late In the Evening jams %% with Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' jam * mash up of: Sweet Dreams (Eurythmics) + Sunglasses at Night (Corey Hart) + Electric Feel (MGMT) ** mash up of: The Gambler (Kenny Rogers) + Night Fever (The Bee Gees) + Rapper's Delight (The Sugarhill Gang) + Bring the Noise (Public Enemy; with Andy on vocals) ^ with Bill Kreutzmann on drums $ mash up of: Wappy Sprayberry + Land of Confusion (Genesis) + Seek & Destroy (Metallica) $$ mash up of: Nemo + Fat Bottomed Girls (Queen) + Good Times Bad Times (Led Zeppelin)