Umphrey’s McGee: A band, a lifestyle, a community

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Umphrey’s McGee/Martin Sexton
Ex’pression College for Digital Art & Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival
Emeryville, CA & San Francisco, CA
October 3, 2010

101003bs-20.jpgOn the third day of what already began as an incredible Rocktober, the six-headed music machine Umphrey’s McGee and the quirky folk singer with a heart of gold and voice of platinum, Martin Sexton, teamed up with Music Allies and the students at the San Francisco Bay area’s Ex’pression College for Digital Arts to perform a live internet broadcast that was free to both the viewers out in TV Land and the mere handful of lucky fans who won tickets to see the event in person. The production was an illustration of how much work and how many people it actually takes to put on just one successful show.

This evening was part two of another San Francisco Sunday for the books that started in the majestic Golden Gate Park at the 10th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, now a flourishing San Francisco staple. Around midday, Martin opened the Star Stage, warming the hearts of a continually growing audience that swelled into a massive, swaying congregation of thousands, stretching back into the expansive Lindley Meadow.

Mirroring the schedule of the webcast, Umphrey’s followed the charmingly comedic folkie as the stagehands and sound techs swarmed the platform to bring the production to life. Interestingly, even Umphrey’s all-star Lighting Designer Jefferson Waful, whose high profile job was obsolete out in the San Francisco sunshine, could be seen hauling instruments to the stage and testing microphones for sound caresser and engineer Kevin Browning and in so doing, demonstrated a small, unintentional parallel to one of the first lessons taught at media art establishments such as Expression and a mantra for the music industry. That lesson is to do whatever is needed to make the show go off without a hitch.

The weather even played its part for Umphrey’s McGee and their following, clearing out seemingly endless fog to reveal a most glorious sun, and sharp blue skies. Finally, after much hustle from the crew, the band took the stage to the roar of a massive audience; some of whom had seen them play a mere 15 hours before within the glint and sparkle of the Reno strip, almost 250 miles away through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. With only about an hour allotted of actual playing time, Umphrey’s took an almost non-stop journey, covering bits and pieces from their decade of musical evolution as a band.  The progressive rock sextet weaved relatively new songs such as the reggae opener of "Turn and Dub" along with their Beatle-esque "Made to Measure," both of which are from their 2009 release Mantis, along with some of their older tunes like the rousing "All in Time" and the note-heavy "Bridgeless."  The show, despite its brevity, contained a fair amount of their classic brand of improvisation, segueing the songs right into one another with well crafted jams that do more than just pass solos around. Rather, it sounded more like a classical structured piece of music.

101003bs-4.jpgSoon, it would be over, and more hours of tear-down, packing, driving to the next destination across town, unpacking, rebuilding the set, tuning, sound checking and, this time, setting up stage lights and cameras for the live internet broadcast would all have to take place before the band would again take their place before the audience to do what everyone came to see.  The rockers returned to greet their fans with another set of music after one more inspired performance by Sexton.  The condensed main stage of Expression College fit their gear like a glove with little room to spare.  And, with somewhere around 50 people in the room, everybody could see every note played, every hand signal given between band members themselves and the ones they gave to the sound crew, tweaking things in real time during their performance.

This show would be different than any normal night that one might witness them play. Trying to squeeze in as much material as possible, the band resorted to playing their songs straight without any improvisation.  Perhaps intentionally, this offering contained only relatively new music spanning from 2008’s "Floor" to a new tune called "Wellwishers" introduced only the previous evening in Reno. This move left some in the grapevine to wonder if there might be a new album in the works including those songs as well as "Conduit," "Booth Love," "The Linear," and "Rocker pt. II" all from within the past year and played like album versions on this evening.  The set ended with one of their classics "Hajimemashite."  During the break, Umphrey’s illustrated how they have always been known to include their fans as much as possible.  As such, another point on the agenda was to announce the winner of their logo contest; just another special event in a whole history of truly special events.  Finally, they returned to the stage for the only already released song of the night, "Cemetery Walk." After a long two days of incredible music, the evening had come to a close.

The moral of this story is that even though bands like Umphrey’s McGee are comprised of some incredibly talented and dedicated musicians, there must be an equally talented and dedicated crew of people to help them.  Without the myriad of people who take care of everything that the band can’t, adoring fans like us would probably never get to see live music.  Surely, we would never get to see the kind of sensory rich events from which Umphrey’s is making their career.  And, on days like this, where the band has to travel hundreds of miles, play three different venues in two days and prepare to leave on another journey to do it all over again the next night in another city or even another state, we must thank the crew for their unrivaled dedication to the music.  Thank you to the people off the stage and behind the scenes who make these rock and roll dreams a reality.

Click the thumbnail to view Brian Spady’s Shots from the show!

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