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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2005/06/07
by John Zinkand

Umphreakin’ Out West

"There’s not a thing worth remembering when tomorrow can bring someone new. Get used to the thought, you can’t be what you’re not. Life has already got plans for you."
-from "The Bottom Half"
I had been looking forward to the west coast Umphrey’s McGee run since the day that it was announced. I immediately jumped into action upon hearing the news by requesting time off at work, booking flight reservations, and calling friends and family to make plans. And the plan was simple. Fly down to the Bay and catch three nights of Umphrey’s at the historic Great American Music Hall, then fly back up to Portland and catch the Eugene, Portland, and Seattle shows. I couldn’t get the time off work to make the trek up to see the Vancouver show, but I’m not sure I would have even wanted to do that much driving anyway. With tickets secured and all the plans made, I sat back and patiently waited for the time to come to see my first extended run of shows with any band in a long time. Anticipation was high.

I flew into Sacramento on Friday morning and my sister picked me up from the airport with my 6 month old niece Marley in tow. To save some cash I decided to fly in and out of Sacramento and stay at my sister’s place in Davis. That way I could just borrow a car from her and drive into the show each night. It’s always great to see my family, but it was particularly nice in light of the fact that I had been going through a separation. After a 14 year relationship, my wife and I are calling it quits. It has been very difficult for me. So I had been looking forward to seeing my family and friends and going on a run of concerts as a way to get my mind off things and try to focus on the positive. When something as catastrophic as the break up of such a long term relationship happens, it takes awhile to adjust to the reality of it all. The whole trip was very therapeutic for me in that sense.

After some quality time hanging out with my sister, playing with little Marley, and enjoying some snacks and whatnot, it was time to head in for the show. I started the drive in to San Francisco from Davis a little bit early so I could see a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in years. He recently bought a first floor condo near Haight St. in San Francisco, so I planned on catching up with him there a bit before heading to the show. Traffic going into the city was awful. Once I hit Oakland, things slowed down to a crawl and pretty much stayed that way until I finally crossed the Bay Bridge. I arrived at my buddy’s place a good hour or so later than I had told him, but we still had some time to hang out, catch up, and grab a Manhattan at a local bar on Haight St.

I decided to take a cab down to the show and back to make things easier. When I arrived at the venue, the line to pick up will call tickets was pretty long and moved incredibly and inexplicably slowly. The opening band Conspirator was already playing when I showed up, but after the painstaking wait for my ticket I did manage to catch some of the tail end of their set. Luckily, it was the part where Jake Cinninger was helping them out on guitar. While the band’s trancier sound is not necessarily my cup of tea, the crowd was dancing and seemed pretty in to the lively opening set.
The Great American Music Hall is a beautiful old venue located right next to a very large strip club with a brightly lit sign and flashing lights. All distractions aside, upon stepping inside the venue I couldn’t help but think of the history of this building, particularly the night of August 13th, 1975 when the Grateful Dead played a very historic show in the classy little room. It’s shaped like a rectangle, basically. There are large pillars all around the perimeters of the dance floor. A very small balcony on the second level wraps narrowly around the room and actually does not provide all that much extra space up there. Full bars are located at the back of the room on both levels, and there are even some express cash only beer and shot lanes on the main level. The room is adorned with ornate decorative carvings and patterns, is colored in lush red and gold, and even has large chandeliers hanging down from the ceiling. It’s a very intimate venue, as well, with a capacity of only approximately 400 people.

I managed to snuggle up in the front left corner of the stage in front of Joel’s keys. I was feeling nice and festive from the beverages I was deftly able to supply for myself and was psyched for a killer rock show by the time Umphrey’s finally took the stage. The band eased into the set with a rendition of an older tune, Example 1. The set quickly picked up steam after an improvisational Jazz Odyssey segment. By the climax of Mulche’s Odyssey, the room was getting worked up into a frothy frenzy. The jam became a blistering wall of sound that pounded us all in the face as the lights twirled round and round. Jake’s fingers were a blur as he worked the strings with the speed of a hummingbird. The thunderous drumming of Kris Myers slammed the tune home. My other personal highlight of the set was a smoking rendition of Tribute to the Spinal Shaft, a song I don’t seem to catch live all that often. The band closed out the set with a great rendition of I Ran by Flock of Seagulls. Aron Magner came out to help and added an authentic 80’s touch with some well played keytar solos. Overall, it was a jamming, fun first set.

The band kicked off the second set with their tune Ringo, but things quickly began to go awry when Kris Myers broke his kick drum. They handled things as well as they could, vamping for awhile in a percussion heavy jam while new equipment was found to replace the old. Jake and Brendan each played some percussion, Jake played Ryan Stasik’s bass for awhile, and ultimately Brendan even found himself over at Joel’s keyboards. It was fun to see the guys having fun up there and making the most of a bad situation like professionals. When the new equipment was in place, they continued on to play a very entertaining second set. While some momentum had been lost, overall they recovered quite nicely. They moved back into Ringo before playing a great version of 2×2 complete with Star Wars teases, then a cover of the Beatle’s tune Baby, You’re a Rich Man, and then back into Ringo to close the run of songs. The second part of the set was another long run of segues of well played Umphrey’s tunes mixed with a verse or two of Def Leppard’s Hysteria. The guys in the band were obviously having a great time as they joked festively with the intimate crowd.
By the time the Hangover>Pipeline>Hangover encore ended, I was just about completely wiped out. It had been a very long day of flying, hanging out, driving, imbibing, and dancing. I still had to get a cab ride back to my buddy’s house and then drive the hour and twenty minutes back to my sister’s place in Davis. I found a cab in no time and was soon driving east over the Bay Bridge. The drive home was uneventful, but I was extremely tired and came close to nodding off once or twice. By the end of the trip, I had the windows rolled down and some high volume heavy metal music pumping to help keep me awake. I hit the bed at around 3:40am and slept like a rock for 9 or 10 hours.

"Big boobs and balls out crowds, your sister screaming loud, movin’ her pelvis to it. We’re yelling on the stage, expelling senseless rage, the taxi’ll take you to it." -from "Partyin’ Peeps" After more visiting with the family and a quick visit to the Whole Earth Festival in Davis on Saturday afternoon to see some of Taarkestra’s set, it was time to head back into the city for more musical mayhem with Umphrey’s McGee. I stopped briefly at my buddy’s house again, but then just decided to drive to the venue myself instead of cabbing it. There was a parking garage across the street from the venue, so it was no problem at all and cost about the same amount as taking a cab, anyway. Parking is always such a bitch in San Francisco, and by the end of the trip I managed to get a parking ticket, something I never seem to leave the City by the Bay without. The line to pick up will call tickets moved much more briskly on Saturday, and I noticed the "Sold Out" sign hanging in the ticket window as I approached. This was the only night of the three that the show was completely sold out. There was a palpable excitement in the air as I entered the packed room. I chatted up a few nice folks, most of whom hailed from the Midwest. The first time I saw Umphrey’s was in Portland in 2001, so I could not claim any allegiance to or special affection for the Midwest. No one seemed to hold this against me, however. I even met one guy who had flown in all the way from North Carolina for the shows, and then continued to see him at the Northwest shows, too. Also, it was hard not to notice the many beautiful young ladies who were at the show each night. Although I was still reeling from my separation, I could definitely see a bright side to things when appreciating all the ladies in the room. Umphrey’s McGee shows have the potential of being a sausage fest on any given night, and it was very nice to see that this was not the case in San Francisco. Everyone mingled freely and enjoyed some beverages as anticipation levels grew and the band finally took the stage.

The show on Saturday night was completely off the hook. The band was in rare form from the very beginning when Brendan told us how he got to see Star Wars Episode Three that day. He joked, "Now, I don’t want to ruin anything for you… But you know R2D2 and C3PO? They fuck." The off color but hilarious joke took the crowd by surprise and everyone was all smiles and laughter as the band broke into a solid version of the newer tune Nemo to open the set. This was followed by a fast-paced, heavily jammed out version of one of their classic tunes, Get in the Van. As the band broke into the chorus of the next tune, The Bottom Half, I couldn’t help but think how the words described my current domestic situation perfectly. It hit me that I was on my own and doing my own thing and having a great time. Life can go on without her. I was realizing that life changes just as much as the improvisational music I love so dearly, the only thing I can do is roll with the changes and move on. Why worry when there’s so much more to experience, especially when tomorrow can bring someone new?

After a bit of therapeutic introspection that made me feel much better, I tried to focus back on the music at hand. The rest of the set smoked with a great version of Prowler, a cover of BOC’s ETI, and an absolutely epic and supremely powerful Der Bluten Kat to end the set. Der Bluten Kat is almost always a mind-blowing affair, but this version to close the set was downright face melting. The band seemed of one mind as they surged in and out of the different sections of the song effortlessly. It is a very long, disjointed affair, but the band nailed all the changes with the apparent ease of playing Mary Had a Little Lamb. The crowd was momentarily stunned and then overcome with enthusiastic emotion as the set came to its impressive climax and close.

I was in the bathroom upstairs using the urinal when I heard the first notes of the second set being played from the stage. I looked over at the guy next to me and asked, "Well, isn’t that an appropriate song choice?" He laughed and appreciated the joke as the band opened the set with the tune Miss Tinkles Overture. The second set was a masterful display of great originals peppered with musical teases and references, fun cover songs, and seamless segues…business as usual for Umphrey’s McGee. A bouncy and fun version of KaBump contained riffs from Toto’s Roseanna and segued into 2nd Self. The band then launched off onto a long and danceable journey by playing their techno influenced tune The Triple Wide with a great cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper sandwiched in the middle of it. As if that weren’t enough, a great version of Clapton’s Layla was followed by a chunky JaJunk to close out the set. We were treated to an incredibly high energy version of Jake’s tune 40’s Theme for an encore. This was no ordinary version, however, as riffs of Yes’s Owner of a Lonely Heart began. Somehow, the band was feeling wacky and changed the familiar chorus into "owner of a lonely big butt," much to the amusement of the sold out house. This show was explosive. It took me a little longer than the previous night to leave because I had to pick my jaw up off the floor first.
"No matter how you fall, it shouldn’t bother you at all, it could take more to overcome less in a day. No matter how you break, you shouldn’t be the one to take, your own opinions as they twist in your own way."
-from "2nd Self"
The second night’s show ended earlier since there was no opening band. I was better rested for it in general, too, so the drive back to Davis that night was not nearly as bad as Friday night (though not entirely pleasant, either). I was able to hit the pillow by about 3:00am and woke to a Mother’s Day gathering and feast. My brother-in-law’s family came over and we all ate a tasty brunch of eggs, fresh fruit, pear coffee cake, and mimosas. They visited for a few hours and then I had to get ready to head back into the city for the final night’s show. I was anxious, but getting a little tired. I decided that I would stay at my friend’s place near Haight St. after the show so I didn’t have to drive all the way back to Davis again at 2:00am. The traffic wasn’t bad at all on the Sunday afternoon drive into the city, and I was at my buddy’s place in no time drinking a beer or two before the show. I hopped in a cab and made it to the venue about 20 minutes before show time.
There were noticeably fewer people on this third night of the run, and everyone seemed pretty psyched for the extra dancing room. If the first two nights were any indication, we would all need it. They started the show off with some newer material by playing Don’t Believe the Lie. It was a solid version and the band sure seems to enjoy playing this one quite a bit these days. At some point during the set, one of the prettier girls in the room excused herself as she squeezed her way up to the front row. She then proceeded to throw a flower at the feet of bassist Ryan "Pony" Stasik. I was very impressed by the apparent power the guy has with the ladies, as were a few other guys around me. Apparently, the women think he’s dreamy.
The rest of the set was very good, but seemed more disjointed than some of the previous sets of the run. Something as subjective as song selection is what made the set feel a little choppy for me, I think. The tune Water slowed down the pace of the set, but then a nice All in Time picked things back up. There was definitely an ebb and flow feel for most of this set, with the band switching gears often and mixing it up. The tail end of the set included a great version of Uncle Wally, cover versions of the tunes Nopener and Running with the Devil, and then a nice long Bad Poker to finish out the set. With all the varied styles, influences, and tempos in this set, one could easily describe it as eclectic, or even neurotic. The crowd sopped it up like a biscuit, though, and was obviously pumped for the final set of this classic run of shows in San Francisco.
Umphrey’s stormed back on the stage to kick off the second set with an epic combination of Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond which led right into a powerful version of the tune Plunger. Shine On was played perfectly and the jam became insane with guitars wailing, Joel going off on the keys, and everything clicking perfectly. Plunger is the first track off the band’s album Anchor Drops, and it was a pleasure for me to finally hear this song played live. The tune is a very heavy, fast, progressive rock work out, and it was played cleanly and tightly – very similarly to the album version since there is no open ended jam in it. This powerful one-two punch set the stage for an excellent set of music to finish off the San Francisco run in style.
The Crooked One made an appearance next, and the band really stretched out this classic tune before diving into the upbeat and danceable song Hurt Bird Bath. But the highlight of the set for me was when Eric Levy from Garaj Mahal came out to lend his helping hand on keys for the tune Slacker. I had seen Eric Levy sit in with Umphrey’s McGee one other time in New Orleans back in 2002, and the foggy memories of that show started coming back to me. The show was at the Blue Nile Club and it started at 2am. Many guests graced the stage that night and the band played until sunrise. In fact, when they ended their first encore, we all went out onto the street in front of the bar to greet the morning and decide what to do next. It was a pleasant surprise for all of us when the band came out and asked us if we wanted to hear them play one more. We filed back in at their request for another song or two, a unique experience to say the least.
The band played another newer one that has been in heavy rotation, Women Wine and Song, before heading back into the rollicking Hurt Bird Bath groove to bring things to a close. The double encore of Glory>Push the Pig was just what the doctor ordered. Glory is a gentle instrumental that slowly builds on itself until it blossoms into a majestic anthem that warms the soul. The Push the Pig encore was great, but it did bring up thoughts of the separation I’m going through yet again as that tune is my wife’s favorite Umphrey’s song. But with the three-show run in San Francisco behind me, my mind was mostly set on the second half of my tour up in my home turf of the Pacific Northwest.
"It was all illusion, fragment of the whole, product of confusion mastering my soul. Moments of division, lost about the way, I can’t feel my vision, swallow and remain."
-from "Divisions"
Work was tough on Tuesday and Wednesday, but it was even tougher on Thursday. After a full work day on Wednesday, I took the two hour drive directly down to Eugene to see the band play at the WOW Hall. Since I had to work the next day, I had to drive back directly after the show. I think I held up pretty well, overall, since I’m not as young as I used to be. And any pain and grogginess I had to go through was definitely worth it. While the Eugene show was not quite up to the caliber of the San Francisco shows, it was certainly no slouch of a show and I’m very glad I got too see it.
The WOW hall is a small all ages room with a bar that serves beer in the basement. There are speakers and a small television screen down there, so I guess in theory one could hang out there and enjoy the show. It seems odd to me, but whatever floats your boat, I guess. After a quick beer in the bar, we headed up to stake out our territory near the front of the stage. Not that there was much staking out necessary in this supremely laid back venue. When the band took the stage, there were only about fifty people on the floor. Of course that changed within a few minutes and the crowd was packed in pretty tightly (for Eugene standards) by the time the first notes of music rang out.
The first set, while fun, was not a mind-blowing set. It was definitely solid, though. Walletsworth kicked things off and then segued into a series of tunes including Dump City, FF, a Jimmy Stewart jam, and finally Bridgeless. The crowd seemed to really enjoy the lilting, almost reggae groove of FF, then were totally blown away by the powerful new tune Bridgeless and it’s intense, high-energy, body-pounding ending. A cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom was next and went over very well with the mostly college aged Northwest crowd. After a few more tunes, they wrapped things up with my favorite newer song, The Bottom Half. The lyrics of to the chorus again soothed my battered soul and encouraged me to take all my current problems in stride.
After hanging with some friends at a nearby apartment and enjoying some set break festivities, we headed back inside to hear the second set. Front Porch got things started off in grand style before the band played a long, twisted, crazy version of Utopian Fir. This song is long and crazy almost every time, but the band really stretched it out and experimented, taking the sound into a number of varied musical spaces. After a well received cover of Equal Rights, the band went off some more for an extended Jimmy Stewart jam that eventually launched into one of the better version of Last Man Swerving I’ve heard. The guitar jam peaks just kept going higher and higher until it seemed like there was nowhere for all the energy to go – that the roof would most surely be blown off the venue. The set ended a bit abruptly due to curfew with the instrumental Atmosfarag. The set list the guys had on stage showed that one of my favorite tunes, Andy’s Last Beer, was supposed to be the final tune of the set. Of course, they played it to open the show the next night in Vancouver, a show I would not be able to witness. A solid encore of Plunger closed out the show and I found myself driving through the darkness back up to Portland in no time.
I picked up a buddy who flew in from North Carolina on Friday morning, and we hung out all day. When the time finally arrived to head over to the Crystal Ballroom downtown, we were pretty psyched. Umphrey’s seems to have a special affinity for Portland as it has been the location of some pretty serious shows. There have been two 4/20 shows in Portland and one Halloween show, so far (NYE any time soon, guys…please?). And nine times out of ten, the band just really kicks it down when they play here. Luckily for us, this show kept that tradition alive and then some. I could argue that the Portland show was just about as good as any of the three shows in San Francisco. The only difference being that the Great American Music Hall has a much more intimate feel than the echo chamber known as the Crystal Ballroom. Yes, the dance floor bounces at the Crystal and that is very novel and entertaining, but if you want good sound, you need to be in the front. We hung in the back of the room and had a drink until Kyle Hollingsworth’s set ended, then quickly snagged space in the front row near Joel’s keyboards where we settled in for the evening.
The band came roaring out of the gates with a great version of Roulette. Things were then kicked up a notch with a long, powerful version of Nothing Too Fancy, a personal favorite of mine, with Women Wine and Song sandwiched in the middle. After a quick breather with the mellow verses of Ocean Billy, the band brought the heat back to close out the set by ending the tune fiercely. That energy carried over into a sick version of Ringo that segued into a Jimmy Stewart jam that simply rocked. If that wasn’t enough, the boys blew apart minds by ending the set with a sweet version of Rush’s YYZ. The crowd seemed generally stunned at the close of the set as they tried to digest the awesome power of the music they had just heard. I was so psyched after the first set that I decided not to go anywhere for risk of losing my great spot in the front row.
The second set started out with 2nd Self before the band kicked down and turned the energy level knobs all the way up to eleven for the rest of the show. A ripping cover of Talking Head’s Making Flippy Floppy complete with all sorts of experimental jams segued into a Jimmy Stewart jam with Kyle Hollingsworth sitting in on keys. Next was the debut cover of Marley’s Burnin’ and Lootin’. The band played a lot of reggae at the Northwest shows, and the kind crowds up here loved it. If the first half of the set was great, the second half may have been even greater. My second Der Bluten Kat of the run was as good if not better than the first. Not that one can really objectively rate music since it is such a subjective art, but this version of DBK blew my mind just as much as the version I caught in San Francisco. There was some serious crowd participation during the next tune, Hangover, as the crowd started chanting the "Break out the booty wax" chant. Wife Soup to end the set was perfect. The catchy chorus of this tune gets me every time and I had not yet heard this gem of a song on my run. Miss Tinkle’s Overture was a great high energy choice for an encore, ending the show in excellent form. During the tune, the band started playing the riff from Rockwell’s tune Somebody’s Watching Me, and the crowd picked up on it and started singing the popular chorus. The band even quieted down so the audience could get in a nice vocal "solo."
We drove the three hours up to Seattle and arrived at my buddy’s place in the early afternoon the following day. We hung out there for awhile, and then went to one of his friend’s place for an evening barbecue. I’ll happily boost my energy levels in preparation for an Umphrey’s show by eating lots of tasty grilled delights any time. We arrived at the Showbox Theater with warm, full bellies and were ready to rock. By the time we got there, Kyle had just ended his opening set and I was surprised by how many people were inside this larger venue. It looks like Umphrey’s has definitely made a name for themselves in Seattle.
The show, for me, was the weakest of the run. Not that there weren’t some extremely tasty musical tidbits in each set, because there were plenty. And I don’t think I even know of any Umphrey’s McGee show that completely, flat out sucked. I think I was becoming a more experienced and picky listener over the six-show run. The most likely possibility for this show being weaker than the others is that both the band and I were getting pretty damn tired after this travel heavy west coast run. They kicked things off in a fairly mellow fashion with We’re Going to War, then played Push the Pig with the help of the sax player from Kyle’s band. After a basic cover of Steely Dan’s Hey 19, the band finally began to wake up a little. They closed out the set with some energetic playing in a long run of tunes including Hurt Bird Bath, The Pequod, Ahab, and All in Time. The crowd definitely did not seem disappointed as they cheered like crazy at the end of the set.
The second set was a similar affair in that the boys didn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders until near the end of the set. Plunger is a nice second set opener, but this was now the third time I had heard it. Partyin’ Peeps kept things festive and it was followed by the Triple Wide, which gave everyone some time to dance and get their groove on. Unfortunately, the Triple Wide segued into two newer songs that I had already heard the band play a few times, Believe the Lie and Nemo. It felt like I was slipping back into having the perspective of a spoiled, over analytical fan like when I was a fervent Deadhead or Phishhead. A crazy 40s Theme and a nice long and jammed out JaJunk saved the set, however, and gave the audience something meatier to sink their musical teeth into. It was nice to hear Pink Floyd’s In the Flesh into Bridgeless as the encore. They really rocked both songs hard, but Bridgeless was yet another newer song repeat for me.
As we drove back to my buddy’s place to call it a night, I couldn’t help but think back on the six great shows I had seen in just nine short days. It was a great run of music, and I had some really great times hanging with my family, as well as friends both old and new. Of course, one person that had been a presence in my life for the fourteen previous years was missing from the equation and that caused a great deal of stress and pain. I got together with my wife back in 1991 and we pretty much saw Phish shows non-stop together until 1996 or so. Last summer, we went to the local movie theater together to see the final Phish show. Ironically, that was exactly the time our relationship began its downward spiral and ultimate demise. It’s almost like the relationship died along with our youth and Phish. But this run of shows really helped me to embrace the new and think positively. There are so many adventures in life and so many more good things to come. I can’t wait to experience it all and catch a hell of a lot more Umphrey’s McGee shows, too.

"We’ve all recovered though still to stand, with no excuses left to tell. So please allow some time to pass… Wouldn’t even believe your eyes it’s all your circus now. Couldn’t even believe your eyes, it’s all your circus now."
-from "Wife Soup"

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