First Avenue is the gem of downtown Minneapolis. For the past 40 years they have been hosting amazing concerts at the independently owned icon, everyone from Joe Cocker to Prince to Nirvana to Atmosphere to The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s. More recently, First Avenue has become home to an annual three-night stand by Chicago prog-rock jamband Umphrey’s McGee, one of the few venues in the country that sees that kind of action from the up-and-coming rockers. Though some of you individuals less-than-familiar with all things UM may be skeptical, I can assure you that when Umphrey’s settles into a town for several nights the surprises are abundant and the band plays for keeps.
My simultaneous induction into the world of live music as well as First Avenue and the adjacent 7th Street Entry took place at a local Rhymesayers Entertainment Showcase on December 21st, 2001; little did I realize at the time this would be the beginning of a long love affair with both the venue and live music as a whole. It’s safe to say I have some history with the club of Purple Rain fame. This particular set of shows on March 12th, 13th, and 14th were also my 49th, 50th, and 51st Umphrey’s concerts, yet it was my first time seeing them at what I have no problem thinking of as my venue. I knew from the very start that these shows would be special; throw in the fact that UM has been playing some of their best shows ever this year and you’ve got a ready made formula for a rocking good time. So, without further ado…
Friday, March 12th, 2010
The opening night of the run was an absolute scorcher. The setlist was written by the band’s road manager Wade, a man with a penchant for epic electro dance parties and the self-indulgent shredding of guitars. We were receiving running commentary from our brother-in-arms Tobrian in San Francisco as he followed the show via Wade’s Twitter account ("hang on keds" (sic) was the warning we received seconds before the show started). The highlights from the first set include an improvised dance-party "Jimmy Stewart" which segued seamlessly into The Linear, a new song that was designed to develop and evolve over the first few instances of it’s being played live. The set closer was also a doozie, with the elegant E-keyed fan-favorites Glory and Hajimemashite being played interlockingly for the first time before the band tumbled into a high energy finger-blistering rendition of Hurt Bird Bath.
Second set kept the energy high and the dance floor hot. From the jazzy breakdown of Professor Wormborg to the recently debuted disco-era tune Booth Love to the drum machine driven Cemetary Walk II, Wade was making the band put their best on the table…and all in the first half of the set! Then came the atom bomb, a cover of the Talking Head’s Making Flippy Floppy which I’d been chasing ever since my first UM show at the Minnesota Zoo in Fall of ‘04. They even did me the service of jamming out the middle segment so we could all party down. Great guys, Umphrey’s McGee. The encore (Got Your Milk (Right Here)) has been a recent favorite of mine and was a delight to catch, as was the Fugazi cover of The Waiting Room.
UM called it a night around 12:30AM and left those of us with ample amounts of energy to wander into the adjoining after party at the 7th Street Entry, featuring the robotic stylings of Future Rock. Clearly influenced by Daft Punk, this Wisconsin based band uses the latest tools in electronic sound development to put on a rock show unlike any seen in the 21st century. In addition to that, their LED strip rainbow-light rig is enough to stop most inebriated hippies and ravers in their tracks. An appropriate ending to a long night, we trekked home to prepare for the events of the second day of UMPLS Run 2010.
Saturday, March 13th, 2010
On day two we had the opportunity to attend a VIP concert in the afternoon. Umphrey’s has been calling these events installments of the Stew Art Series (S2 ). The idea is to perform about 45 minutes of improvised music and let the audience guide the improvisation through texting suggestions of themes to a screen that is visible to the band. It’s an interesting undertaking to experience, to say the least. It was fun to see them stretch their limits a little; the guitar players, Bayliss and Cinninger, had a hard time trading lyrics for one of their songs; however, the percussionist Farag looked about as comfortable as he could be when he took over Kris Myers drum kit for a few minutes. Between watching the band work out ideas onstage in a controlled environment and whatever information is gleaned from the Q&A segements, the whole experience is very informative about how things work at UM HQ. In addition to entertainment I think that it serves an important role in the band’s preparation for a show: it allows the band to get in tune with the expectations and ideas of a small sample of the evening’s audience before getting on stage and letting loose.
I had the privilege on Saturday evening of bringing my father, two of my uncles, and three of my cousins to their first Umphrey’s McGee concert. I am pleased to report that everyone had a fantastic time; this is no big surprise when you consider the show that was put on for them that evening. Highlights for me in the first set were a two part version of the classic In The Kitchen and the percussionist-composed electronic odyssey, Atmosfarag (which I’ve only heard once before). Both were great catches and excellent material for first timers. My uncle Pat really enjoyed the jammed out Norwegian Wood tease in Resolution and was having a great time when the second half of ITK gave way to Genesis’ That’s All. The latter had all of my relatives clapping along, a good sign enjoying a show if I’ve ever seen one.
Second Set was full of surprises for all parties involved. The first 30 minutes of the set was one big rock show, no interruptions. The prog-rock masterpiece Mantis, title track of their 2009 album, thundered out of the gates. My first time hearing it in 2010, I can safely say that this song has developed a healthy road life since it was debuted just over one year ago. They easily sandwiched a monstrous disco-beat Wappy Sprayberry that featured local sax player Kevin Sinclair within the complex structure before coming back into the conclusion of Mantis, half an hour into the second set. The sax feature in Wappy was a big hit with my dad, who favors old-school jazz and blues when he’s got control of the radio. I think it went a long way towards making his night a good one. After some Fussy Dutchman and Push The Pig action, the band took off and never looked back. A nice cover of Peter Tosh’s Stepping Razor gave way to an Ocean Billy/Plunger doublestack sandwich with a Kula filling, a nice little tour of some of the band’s older material. While I enjoyed the Friday night show best out of the run, I couldn’t have picked a better setlist with which to introduce my family members to the band. An encore of the familial themed Alex’s House, once again featuring the smooth stylings of Sinclair on saxophone, was followed by the album-closing 1348.
I bid my family goodnight and headed to 7th Street Entry for the evening’s late night show by Michigan’s Greensky Bluegrass. I was fortunate enough to see Greensky perform several times last year and even had the opportunity to chat with the guys for a little bit at the North West String Summit Festival. As far as bluegrass goes they are some of the hottest pickers I’ve heard in a good minute. It is always a delight to catch their soothing five man take on modern string melodies. We hung around for about two hours before calling it a night. Two days in, one to go. Exhausted, but ready to finish strong.
Sunday, March 14th, 2010
As with the Saturday show I was successfully able to coerce five individuals to attend their first Umphrey’s concert with me. Instead of my family, I brought some of my friends. Truth be told I was actually pretty excited with the fact that I was able to convince five of them to go. Similar again to the Saturday show, no one was disappointed. As the opener, Heatbox, drew to a close, UM began to appear on stage one by one to start jamming over the end of the final song. The result was a seamless transition from one group to the other. Beginning with the song Hangover, us poor, tired, and sore souls were spared from waiting around for the band to begin. Whether it was exhaustion on my part or the band’s (or both), I was not as impressed with the energy of the evening’s show as much as I had been the previous two nights. Not to say that the show wasn’t an epic standalone performance, but in light of the rest of the weekend it was a little lackluster.
First set highlights included the self-depreciating anthem Slacker with a Dear Lord tucked neatly inside. I’m still waiting for UM to "give me their best" on that one. The aptly named Rocker II was also a treat. The songs chosen for this evening were not as beginner friendly as the Saturday night shows but a solid exhibition of UM’s skills was displayed as the evening progressed. A Rush cover was chosen, YYZ, which is not really my favorite tune (or band for that matter) but it got the job done and took us back into Hangover to wrap up the initial set of the evening.
Second set picked up the pace as far as I’m concerned. Kicking it off was the electro-jam Nothing Too Fancy, which is flashier than the name suggests. Besides the rarity of Get In The Van, however, my favorite parts of the set were the two covers, Herbie Mann’s Muscle Shoals Nitty Gritty and the Clash’s London Calling. Quite different though they are, both songs are relatively recent additions to the UM catalog (2008, 2009 respectively). As with all of their covers they are well practiced and executed, and tend to get the crowd going a little harder than before. The encore was a nice contrast, with the mellow lyrical Made To Measure being sandwiched inside of the epic instrumental metal (or instrumetal, as I like to call it) jam Wizard Burial Ground. The transition out of M2M back into WBG was as seamless as any other that we heard over the course of the long weekend. I’m more than happy to take that as a good omen of things to come. A fantastic note to end the weekend on.
Well, that about wraps it up here. More pictures can be seen at http://spadyphotography.com/umphreys_minneapolis_2010/ Thanks for checking in kids, look for more from our crew following Umphrey’s McGee’s inaugural UMBowl at the end of April. It’s sure to be a performance of legendary proportions…