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Umphrey's McGee: Storytellers, Soundstage and Live at Red Rocks

Ben Fong-Torres

Ben Fong-Torres

Posted to Center Stage on July 1, 2016

A dozen years ago, Rolling Stone declared that Umphrey’s McGee “have become odds-on favorites in the next-Phish sweepstakes.”

Truth is, from its beginnings in 1997 at Notre Dame, when two bands became one, Umphrey’s McGee haven’t been the next anythings. They’re their own thing, with their adventurous, wide-ranging music and their enthusiasm for leaping off cutting edges, producing podcasts back in 2005 and performing live mash-ups of their own songs beginning in 2008.

They also have a great sense of humor. Their first album, in 1998, was called Greatest Hits Vol. III, followed by Songs for Older Women. In 2002, when they were well established, they entitled an album Local Band Does OK.

You would think that they’d be perfect for a Storytellers, ala the series on VH-1 in which artists and bands dissected, then performed their songs. And they are. On New Year’s Day this year, UM gave it a shot, combining the anatomy-of- a-song concept with their dedication to jam-band principles, of reaching out to fans, of letting them record and share their live performances, and, in this case, of having them select the songs they would talk about and play.

They chose the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, where they had performed in late 2013, and they decided not to pack it, thus creating a more intimate experience for their most devoted fans. The guys showed the crowd a film about the band, then relaxed into and through seven songs, old and new, and explaining their real meanings. “Mantis” is about God, “Gone for Good” is not about their late drummer, Mike Mirro, but about a one-night stand; “Liquid” isn’t LSD, but a brain’s “liquid matter,” which allows one to remember sights, sounds and sensations.

It goes on like that, with gentle good humor and a clear appreciation of life, of music, of other musicians, and of each other.

Here at Qello Concerts, it’s a triple shot of Umphrey’s. For a straight ahead concert, it’s hard to beat their two and a half-hour performance in July last year at the majestic (especially at night) Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado, with their blazing light show washing over the outdoor audience, a perfect visual match for their updated prog-rock, fueled by doubled guitars and percussionists.

Or, for the UM of a decade ago, there’s their Soundstage stint from 2007, at PBS’s Chicago affiliate, WTTW’s Grainger Studio, featuring six songs not included on the original broadcast; 12 tracks in all. The guys don’t say a word before “Ocean Billy,” “Higgins” and “Got Your Milk (Right Here). Then, for “Out of Order,” Brendan Bayliss, guitarist-vocalist, speaks up. “We really typically name songs because we can’t think of anything that makes sense.” He points to a bandmate. “I think you were yelling at me for being out of order; out of line, and that’s the name of the song. It has nothing to do with anything.”

Trust me; the stories are much better in Storytellers.

Even if you weren’t reading Rolling Stone magazine in the late '60s /early '70s, you might still know who Ben Fong-Torres is from the movie “Almost Famous.” Ben Fong-Torres is the legendary Rolling Stone Senior Editor who was characterized in the Cameron Crowe movie and now,… More