Umphrey’s McGee: Hauntlanta
Chicago progressive-rock group Umphrey’s McGee has enjoyed a substantial following for the past 15 years, and their audience continues to grow. With the release of their seventh studio album “Death by Stereo” this past September, the group has proved that they can take staples of their live shows and trim them down to shorter compositions with a variety of string, brass and wind instruments which are usually not a part of their live acts. Known for their seemingly endless tour schedule, UM chose Atlanta to host their annual Halloween Mash-up event. The sold-out “Hauntlanta” shows took place at the Tabernacle, one of the band’s favorite venues in the country, and VA thought we should cover the monumental spectacle.
Though they have been continually labeled as a “jam band,” UM’s approach to music is one that differs from many of their peers. Notable jam bands such as String Cheese Incident, Phish and Georgia’s own Widespread Panic have a distinctly softer sound and draw extensively from bluegrass, classic rock and world music. Although UM uses some of these genres in their music, many of their tunes are derived from heavier sounds like ‘80’s rock, funk, electronic music, and other progressive bands such as King Crimson and Rush. “Death by Stereo” displays all of these genres, taking the listener on a sonic tour of their influences. When put next to a band like Phish the two groups are easily distinguishable, and the way each band improvises during shows is equally different.
UM’s improvised sections are referred to colloquially as “Jimmy Stewarts,” due to their first improvised performance in the Jimmy Stewart ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel in Pittsburgh. Through a complex set of hand signals and sports-like calls to each other while playing, the band decides when to lead into another number, insert a Jimmy Stewart, or end a particular song.
Examples of this can be found in videos of their live shows, but the band does its best to keep the audience unaware of when these changes will occur. Often, the call will be made several measures before they change the music’s direction, and these tweaks embody what an UM show is all about.
One attribute that UM shares with its jam peers is that they vary their set lists each night and never play songs twice in a row. With a repertoire of over 80 original songs and dozens of covers ranging from Godfather of Soul James Brown to Godfathers of Prog Pink Floyd, there are literally hundreds of directions a show can take.
The second night of “Hauntlanta” begins with a long period of waiting. The opening band, Athens, Georgia natives Dubconscious, have canceled due to a “freak injury” so UM is taking the stage early. The Tabernacle is packed with an anxious audience who wants nothing less than an unforgettable performance. Finally the room goes dark, lit only by stage lights provided by the amazing Jefferson Waful. Waful is UM’s lighting technician and “seventh member,” since the show isn’t the same without awesome lights.
The band takes the stage in their mash-up Halloween costumes and begins a four-minute improvised piece which leads right into their fast-paced “40’s Theme.” The crowd goes nuts and the whole building begins to vibrate. After the song finishes, “Keith Richard Simmons” (lead vocalist and guitarist Brendan Bayliss) introduces the rest of the band in their mash-up-themed outfits: “Dimebag Daryll Hall” (lead guitarist Jake Cinninger), “Vince Neil Armstrong” (keyboardist Joel Cummins), “Karate Kid Rock” (bassist Ryan Stasik), “Pamela Anderson Cooper” (drummer Kris Meyers), and “Raggedy Andy Rooney” (percussionist Andy Farag).
After the introductions UM lays into “Miami Virtue,” the first single off of “Death by Stereo.” They then segue into an eight-minute Jimmy Stewart that leads into another crowd favorite, “Push the Pig.” The song lasts about eleven more minutes, the crowd won’t stop cheering. This is good, because there are about three more hours of music to come.
After “Pamela Anderson Cooper” does a quick “report,” UM begins the first half of “Mulche’s Odyssey” and transitions into an original version of “The Haunt,” the song which this weekend has promised. The crowd is taken by surprise, because for the past four years the band has been playing a slower, heavier version of the song with more distortion. The “OG” rendition, as it is known by fans, rarely makes an appearance so tonight is a great time to showcase it.
As the band leads out of the song, they go into another Jimmy Stewart – this time with lyrics. Bayliss’ vocals subside before the band switches to the thunderous “Padgett’s Profile.” After a short break and a seven-minute version of “The Floor,” another track off of “Death by Stereo,” the band plays their first mash-up of the night: “Addicted to Kiss.”
The song starts with the intro to “Kiss” by Prince before changing into Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” After several minutes into the song the band brings dancers onstage with blow-up guitars, a tribute to the late Robert Palmer’s stage shows. The song ends with part of Genesis’ “I Can’t Dance” before ending the first set. The crowd still won’t let-up, and “Pamela Anderson Cooper” promises they will return shortly to “rock face again…”
After an intermission the band begins with another mash-up titled “Come As Your Kids,” which consists of “Kids” by electronic group MGMT, then “Come As You Are” by grunge legends Nirvana, and finally “You Spin Me Round” by new wave band Dead or Alive. The song leads into a short jam before revealing the second half of “Mulche’s Odyssey.”
When the song is over “Keith Richard Simmons” introduces the band’s crew and thanks them for their hard work. Then the band goes face-first into their classic tune “All In Time,” stretching the song for nearly 20 minutes with jams taken from Prince of Darkness Ozzy Osborne’s “Crazy Train” and “The Fish” by progressive rockers Yes.
Once the opus finishes, the band takes a moment to retune before starting “Day Nurse,” an instrumental piece that gets everyone moving with its hypnotic bass line and keyboards. After it’s done the band plays “Resolution,” before leading into “2×2,” another song from the beginning of their career.
After “2×2” UM begins the last song of the set, a mash-up called “1985 Wellwishing,” “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” by Wings, “Well Wishing” by Terence Trent D’Arby, and UM’s own “Wellwishers.” The music to each song is played almost simultaneously, accentuated by the infectious guitar of “Well Wishing” which leads into a piano-driven jam by Joel Cummins. They close the piece with a section from another Wings song, perhaps their best-known: “Band on the Run.” UM then leaves to prepare for their double-encore.
After a quick break, they begin “Hajimemashite,” slowly building to a beautiful jam that crescendos into the night’s last mash-up, titled “In The Puppet Kitchen.” The song combines two original UM songs: the newer “Puppet String,” which debuted this past May at Summer Camp Music Festival, and the older “In The Kitchen.” The song weaves between verses of both pieces and lasts over 15 minutes.
But they’re not done yet! They once again tune-up, this time for their (arguably) most notable instrumental piece, “Nothing Too Fancy.” The song starts quietly before flowing into the main rhythm, followed by an extended jam which includes part of Blue Öyster Cult’s famously eerie “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” The song segues back into more jamming before excellently concluding the evening’s show. The band leaves the stage – this time for good – but the crowd still won’t stop cheering.
The show is still burned into my memory weeks later, and I hope that UM will return to Georgia as soon as possible. Until then, both nights of Hauntlanta are available in multiple formats from their live show archive, UM.net, and they can be streamed from iClips.net for $15.99. I highly recommend that anyone who is a fan of complex, soulful rock ‘n roll purchase the shows and support the band. If money is an issue, though, fan-taped versions of the show are available at Archive.org for free, although the quality is not as professional. It’s totally legal, totally worth it, totally UM-azing.