Umphrey’s McGee at the Orange Peel, February 19, 2011. Photo by Jeff Pearson.
Originally published by Life’s Sweet Breath
Every time Umphrey’s McGee plays the Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, things are bound to get weird. With Thursday’s show selling out earlier in the day, things are bound to get weird for a lot of people. Umphrey’s has always shown Asheville a lot of love, and Thursday the beautiful mountain town returns the favor. With an Umphrey’s show, so much of the experience is based on the exchange of energy between the band and the crowd, with an almost symbiotic relationship developing over the course of the evening. The improvisations are fueled by this energy and are given their shape by it; one song will lend itself to a frenzied, strobe-lit sensory onslaught, while the next will see the group mind settle into the groove it has laid down, delicately exploring its nether regions. Thursday night in Asheville, Umphrey’s are taking the Orange Peel to the abyss.
The crowd is treated with a short Zach Deputy set to get things rolling; the one-man band expertly works through his tunes by building a foundation of funky acoustic guitar licks and beat-boxed drum sounds, as he howls his southern-fried lyrics with a giant grin on his face. Deputy is known for his marathon-length, funked-up sets full of live looping expertise, and the Orange Peel gets a small taste of what he is capable of in his short timeslot. It’s always refreshing to see a musician so truly entranced in his or her craft, and doing so with such an enchanting smile doesn’t hurt either.
The venue gradually sees people pouring in during the last portion of Deputy’s performance, and by the time the house lights go down to leave the capacity crowd in the dark, there is hardly even elbow room for those waiting for Umphrey’s to appear on the purple-lit stage. The first set starts off with “Red Tape”, a standout track from 2009’s Mantis, setting the mood for what would be a heavy evening, with Umphrey’s wearing their progressive rock influences on their sleeves. The band breaks “Red Tape” wide open; with keyboardist Joel Cummins laying down fat synthesizer riffs over the top of a steady groove, the song sees “Billie Jean” interpolations and funky guitar interplay between Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss as the energy builds and builds into an explosive return to the chorus. Umphrey’s pull things back to earth, the south more specifically, with “Bad Poker”, a twangy ode to a night of wasted money and brain cells sung by guitarist Jake Cinninger. As “Bad Poker” swings its way towards conclusion, the band channels the spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd, mixing the “Sweet Home Alabama” riff into their improvisation. Only in the south.
Umphrey’s quickly head for the hills, or from the hills in this case, for spaces unknown. “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” showcases the thunderous rhythm section of drummer Kris Myers, bassist Ryan Stasik and percussionist Andy Farag, as the three expertly weave through the syncopated guitar lines, creating a disjointed, yet wholly controlled effect. Cinninger employs yet another interpolation; this time, before the band turns “Tinkle’s” head over heels into a dance party, he teases one of his favorites from John Williams’ Star Wars score. The band patiently wind “Tinkle’s” up to let it run wild all over the Orange Peel, with a lot of space and tension created for the inevitable return to madness.
A lot of love is voiced for Asheville, and Cinninger introduces a local friend to help out with the next song. Chris Tanfield, one of the finest Moog theramin players in the area, joins Umphrey’s on stage for a rowdy version of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House”; he and Cummins exchange alien mating calls before, by this point, an absolutely electrified crowd. The first set then takes on a very liquid form. Umphrey’s plays the beautiful “Water”, a song that does an impeccable job of sonically representing the compound, and it literally seems to drip into “Blue Echo”, like water dripping into a darkened pool at the bottom of a cave. “Blue Echo” again sees the band stringing the crowd along, guiding them through a world of dark, electronic-tinged themes.
Umphrey’s flip things upside-down with “Much Obliged”, not only replacing Brendan Bayliss with fifteen-year old guitar prodigy Jake Haldenwang, but inverting the song itself. The two Jakes stand face-to-face, exchanging blues riffs, and Haldenwang is right on top of the changes within the song structure. It’s a terrific way to end the first set, with the entire band all smiles after getting to bring a huge moment to the young guitarist’s career.
To kick off the first set, the Orange Peel is treated to a sizeable “Last Man Swerving”, “The Linear”, and “Roundabout” sandwich on “Plunger” bread. “Plunger” is huge, and once again sees the band taking a very paced approach at delivering improvisational material. Something about Asheville has the boys taking things slow. When Umphrey’s improvisations take this form, it’s easy to see the level of creation that is happening on stage. Entirely new compositions are created on the spot, with each member stretching their contributions out over as much sonic territory as possible. “Last Man Swerving” brings the space-funk to the forefront, while “The Linear” and the Yes tune, “Roundabout” once again show the band’s progressive side. After the band plays the conclusion to “Plunger”, and the crowd feels full from such a meaty sandwich, Umphrey’s decide to blow the roof off of the Orange Peel.
“Mulche’s Odyssey” takes the energy the band has spent patiently building up all night, and throws it back in the crowd’s collective face. The improv section takes the same methodical approach as the previous portions, but absolutely explodes into dueling guitar mastery and earth-shattering rhythms. “Mulche’s” is a highlight of the night; if there was an unmoved soul in the building before, Umphrey’s now had its full participation. The set ends with “Cemetery Walk” and “Cemetery Walk II”, two cuts which continue the prog-dance precedent set forth throughout the bulk of the show. The band leaves the stage to roaring approval; scattered “We want the Umph!” chants pepper the buzz as the crowd eagerly awaits the encore.
The encore showcases the multi-faceted nature of Umphrey’s music, split in half by the lovely ballad “Can’t Find My Way Back Home”, and the ferocious new song, “Go To Hell”. The juxtaposition of these two styles next to each other is indicative of the overall feel of the evening: calmness on the edge of chaos. The night was characterized by both dark, ambient improvisations and high-energy bedlam. Such is the way of the south. I suppose one can’t help but feel exploratory in those rolling Asheville hills.