An Umphreys McGee Tour Journal for St. Augustine
Told You So?
Copyright April 13, 2015 All Rights Reserved
Let’s begin at the beginning and see where we end up, ok?
Wiped my bald head down sopping up the pour-off of sweat, a scorching first set of Umphreys McGee, the burnt orange UmphLove sticker melted off Lenin’s middle finger, the revolution was well underway, the 21st century band of my moment and, in my opinion THE band of our future. Here stood prodigies, a band of brothers and a small village of amazing support genius. Innovation does not begin to describe what this group has done, not just melting faces, but taking visual performance artistic extravaganza into a new orbit.
I woke this morning and tried to recall my cream dream, yes I was so wet, Wawful’s lights, Matt’s Snowcones and Headphones, Chris the lion, the maestro at the sound board, the perfect venue in St. Augustine, and oh by the way this magic act we claim as our Umphreys, god did the Spanish moss melt into this entrancing glow, the red lizards trying hard to conceal their day-glow tongues climb the impressionistic bark reshaping it’s patterns and colors chameleon-like, fallen leaves, a carpet no Milliken will ever weave, certainly not this moving escalator taking you deep into your mind. Oh sunshine!
St. Augustine, the oldest city in North America was an ironic, still perfection, but ironic choice as the setting for the revolution we witnessed April 10 and 11, 2015. The continent’s oldest modern city was the battleground for this revolution that would not be stopped, and nothing pray to god will stop them from taking over the world of live music for years to come. The newest, though wise beyond their years, and the best conceived over these past 15 years, and now birthed by thousands of midwives, we held our baby and cooed like proud parents. Umphreys is for real, they are beyond real, hyper-real, surreal, sublime like no other band I have seen in 45 years of live music.
Perhaps you have had the flying dream, willing yourself higher effortlessly and feeling the raptor’s pleasure drafting the radiated heat, invisible, but real beyond any reality you may have been conditioned to believe. Roaring down the tracks, my coal train screamed out of the black into the void beyond which is true consciousness. There I was soaring with my arms outspread in love powered by joy, powered by masses of old fans, new fans, young and old, phreaks and noobs, beautiful people who share one heart, the heart that bleeds tears of ecstasy. It’s called UmphLove!
Mark your calendars to April 10 and 11, 2015, an historic date. Umphreys McGee slays and plays for the universe of music lovers. There is not a style they have not mastered. And they do it with improvisation in complete control and electric execution. Precarious balancing act it is, between virtuosity and frenetic on the fly inspiration, driving fans higher and higher, we’re raptors and we’re never coming back. Their set lists are meticulously planned, their work ethic leads by example, harmonies crafted like an old time watchmaker, and all choreographed with lights that you can hear in synchronicity with sounds you see. This is fun, this is beauty, this is love, this is celebration! We are Umphreys and they are us. Least we can dream right?
I broke out my Lenin t-shirt night 2, “fuck the revolution” little knowing how apropos it would be. Their first set teased us with a genius we have come to love, we were delighted, like kids with our first sparklers. And then they came out for set two, and you could smell the heat. Have you ever started a fire with gasoline? Light the fuse, and poof it blows out at you like a dragon. Yes of course you’re scared, afraid, the acrid smell of your hair burning, you run to the first aid kit or jump in the pool before blisters have a chance to form. Waves of pleasure consume you and black diamonds take over your mind. Could this be heaven? You’re ok, it’s heat, but it doesn’t burn, it cools you to down to zen, but you will dance. You will rage wild with mad love. I’ve live far north surviving 40 below no wind chill, felt the harsh cold electromagnetism of the aurora borealis watching over me. I’ve hiked in 110 degrees, climbed mountains in fact, but never have I been cut by the cold steel and the warmed by the scorching heat that Umphreys delivers.
It is more than heaven. Dylan sang ‘knocking on heaven’s door’, Jerry sang ‘going down the road feeling bad, going where the water tastes like wine’. We arrived on April 10, True to the prophets who had prophesied this moment, some 40 years ago. Perhaps Dylan and Jerry were too gentle in their oracular prescience, because Umphreys breaks down heaven’s door and takes you higher and farther than our minds can even imagine. It ain’t heaven, it’s perfect! And the water tastes more like some magical spirit, absinthe perhaps, palinka, slivovica, take your pick and bathe in its elixir. Swim with the angels, and dance an orgy fest with your delirious mates. God blessed this day. And Umphreys consecrated it. We are one.
This tour was late-named the Lemonade tour. First planned for the Fort on Amelie Island until the oldsters up there caught wind of potential hazardous material traffic, intimidated they rescinded their invitation and Umphreys was left to scramble for an alternative venue. No band has as good a supporting cast as them, so it was a lesser problem for them than it might have been for mere mortals. St. Augustine amphitheater was named the replacement and it was perfect, likely better than the Fort. Hence, if you get lemons you make lemonade right? I’ve got 3 or 4 lemon trees so I know a thing about lemons. Pucker up baby! Always the overachievers, Umphreys brewed up lemoncello, instead of simple lemonade. Yep that was the elixir, a little sticky, but intoxicating as fuck, they drank us under the table, cept we were dancing on top of the tables in naked joy. We mighta fooled em this time? Divine. Perfect!
My mates on this tour materialized as angels and through pure magic. I was under a spell. A divine incantation. Martin drove down, yes drove down from Colorado, my local boy, the world traveler himself, Derek, flew over to meet me from Phoenix, shit even Jorma Kaukonen, the tease, stopped in Chicago to serenade me mid-way to Florida, Bruce met me from North Carolina, Cambo was the shocker, what a hero rager, my friend for life, from Portland, Maine, jesus saves, they all surprised me with a birthday present I’ll never forget. They say it’s your birthday!
Here’s the deal. Night one as the first set comes to a close, I check my phone for some unknown reason, spirits? and see that Cambo is calling. I answer as Educated Guess is driving to a furious climax,
Cambo, Cambo? what up?
Where are you?
I am at the Umphreys show of course.
What are you wearing? Where are you?
Me, still in stupid, can’t believe what’s going on mode,
Why? A Guinness tee-shirt with a big cream colored Guinness art. In the rows immediately above the sound-board. Why? Are you streaming? Is this being videoed? Are you watching?
I was wild with questions, Cambo was too,
I’m here. I’m here dude!
What I screamed! Fuck you are, don’t punk me man. You’re streaming right? You’re bullshitting right. How did you get here?
Fuck that, where are you?
I repeated my position and stayed put, and then Cambo appeared in this dream. Cambo and I embraced in a long and delirious hug. We stood back and looked into each other’s joyous faces. We took each other in. We kissed. Ahhh, sweet kisses of ragerhood. We two boys kissed with passion. Friends, brothers, comrades, tourmates, lovers, call it what you will. Umphreys changes lives with hammer and tongs at the forge and in the casting we are re-shaped into platinum, never to be the same again.
Cameron had taken a bus at 3AM from Portland to Boston, then caught a plane to Minneapolis and another to Jacksonville. And then he did the good Samaritan thing and hooked up with a young Umph couple who had not anticipated a $200 uber to St. Augustine and gave them a lift the final leg of his odyssey. And mischief-maker that he is he didn’t tell me,. The others’ stories are not as wild, but all decided last minute to meet for Umphreys in St. Augustine. It is beyond words. I love these guys and never dreamed there could be friendship as sweet. Yep Cambo surprised me, what a treat to share Umphreys one more time together. I ain’t getting any younger.
Such an interesting band. What can you say about talents of such a diverse assemblage as Umphreys? That they will likely be dysfunctional? Probably most of them are. Yet Umphreys, the exception, seems to have created their own hybrid family structure. How is this possible? Their cohesion as a musical group is one of the wonders of the world. They genuinely love each other. They have every right to be egomaniacs with their gifts, but they turn their egos into a collective spirit that is palpable. Communication is perfect and effortless. Kris and Andy lay down the pace with rhythmic power, perfectly in synch and complementing the hypnotic bass of Stasik, the keyboard wizardry of Joel, the sheer adaptive virtuosity of Jake and Brendan’s soul laid naked before us. We are enthralled, they are perfect, and we are called together, perhaps this might be the rapture? But we are still here. Even though our feet have lost their purchase on earth, we fly together soaring. Certainly I must be under some kind of dreamy spell. Please let it not stop. Ever.
Remember your first sexual experience? Mystified by this source of pleasure, addictive as it is, and craving more, you finally collapse spent into her arms. Umphreys is better than that, indescribably better. I have no idea how they do it. It’s like sex, you can’t figure out how all that happens either, only they are better than that, yep I’m sticking to my guns, Umphreys is better than sex. I had no idea such pleasure could exist, it’s sheer joy is hard to describe, but let’s try.
How did we happen to be so fortunate to see Umphreys together in Florida?
So how the fuck did this weekend come to be for me, an Arizona rat, who had never been to Florida? Well of course the Fort tease did the trick. It did sound like a pretty sweet place for Umphreys. And then the switcheroo, we dialed the daily double in my opinion. St. Augustine sounded special, and very apropos for my first visit – who has ever said anything good about Orlando or Miami? But St. Augustine, the oldest modern city this side of the equator in the west, perhaps the oldest in all of North and South America? Somebody can answer that for me I’m sure. No matter, I’m hooked. No going back for me just because of a venue change.
Did the AirBnB thing real quick and found a sailboat in Conch Bay Marina a mile from the venue. Owned by a Moldovan guy, so intrigued at that of course. And I got a room. The master cabin to be sure. If I’d known my crew was going to meet me, I would have taken the whole boat, but we ended up sharing it in split shifts with another totally clueless couple, of course that would be a non-UM couple. We had the boat during the days, and they took it at night. So we really didn’t cross paths, the time we did, our party pledged never to do it again.
Yep we stayed on a yacht in a marina and Svetla was our absent host. An intriguing way to slip in to St. Augustine. Of course as many things eastern European, it was a sketchy deal. Georgi, Svetla’s alpha, had sailed it over from Greece six months ago. It was old, in shit shape, probably scammed. We made due. As a party boat it worked. And a fine view of myriad Florida beauties plus nice sunrises, so I am told, and we had no complaints.
Breakfast was brunch on this tour, as always, and the Cove restaurant was like a foodie paradise. Newly opened and crewed by Tanya and her partner Cole they treated us to healthy and novel creations – black bean falafels, pastrami hash, tofu scramble which as is my manner I requested they add salmon to in tribute to my favorite Leo breakfast. Perfect.
And Tanya’s daughter is a picture of jesus and the little children all decked out in her sky blue hat covering her blonde curls, you can almost see her walking through fields of daisies gently plucking the best for her Momma’s bouquet of the day. In the presence of pure innocent spirit such as this, I tear up. This little girl, my own baby daughter is now 26, restores my heart reminding me of life’s essential goodness. If only I could imitate Monet, I would paint her. Any one need a commission? You’ll be famous and I’ll be happy!
Each day, especially as my gorgeous friends surprised me one at a time, the boat became a pre-game paradise. There was no planning or conspiracy, as each decided on their own to make this trip. Johnny Black made a guest appearance too, but I guess that’s no surprise. Beers, and tacos from Mojo’s right up the street, Pandora Zappa pounding out of the speakers, the one thing on the boat that worked. I know how to pick em? Nope, it’s a better lucky than good thing. Same with my friends. Sure it was a huge surprise, but if you believe in each other like we do, anything is possible. Sort of like Umph!
A layman’s view of the band and St. Augustine
OK, let’s be clear here, I ain’t no trained music critic. My folks are musicians, my son does it for a living, so I’m not an idiot either. But I’ll leave the detailed band and musical reviews to the experts and read them with respect. My impressions, tattooed on my heart as they are, in an impressionistic stencil, are just the spontaneous cartoon strip of my brain. Brain doodles about a band and a set of shows I can’t get out of my mind. The experience of a lifetime, or at least the 21st century so far.
Got my Lenin shirt years ago in Budapest. It’s a black Tee with bold white paint and a picture of Lenin on the front flipping a giant bird at everyone, and you can almost hear him shouting, “Fuck the Revolution”. Says “Fuckin Revolution” on the back. I had never worn it because it’s generally not the thing to do. For some reason I packed it on this trip. Umphreys McGee on the beach, it seemed like the thing to do.
And what a revolution. What a fucking revolution Umphreys McGee is. They are amazingly approachable as individuals and as a band. Not through managers generally, but genuine individual outreach. They’re all different as people to be sure each with his own individual style. Left to right, Jake’s the childlike enthusiasm one, a musicologist really who found his love and turned it into genius, Kris is more reserved with an inner rage under precarious control, channeling his passion through his fierce drumming and some raging vocals that are a bonus, Ryan is the center of the group both geographically, though he will wander, and with a constancy and magnetism perfect for the bass, Andy is a laconic figure with a Zen-like ability to adapt and complement who ever he is with. The ever present Jedi-mind, Brandon is the iconic Everyman with the uncanny ability to be real, scorching and inspirational all at once for us aspiring wannabes, and Joel is the keyboard jeweler gregarious face of the group and sharing musicology duties with Jake. Together they are perpetual energy as they invent, re-create, disintegrate and then synthesize, or re-synthesize as necessary, before transmitting their continuous plasma stream of magical energy to all. Some of us know the words, but don’t let that stop you.
It is magic; magic of a personal harmony sort, the intangible what is this flower kind of magic. Their interpersonal chemistry is pure synergy. If there is ego, of course there must be, they have learned to manage it and channel it constructively. Shoot they’ve been together 20 years or so. They have figured it out.
Please don’t tell me I’m wrong, as I imagine them to be stronger together than even family. They just exude a collective essence that would not be possible if they didn’t genuinely like each other. Most of them hail from Notre Dame and Chicago area. And thanks god they didn’t become doctors and lawyers and sociologists or some shit like that. Ok that was strong, but Umph fans probably wake every day and give some kind of thanks that they became a band. Am I right?
Creative genius is a powerful phrase, but it’s Umphreys McGee’s profile through and through. Start with the name. How cool, and to think I still mis-spell it? Can’t explain it, but the real fans that read this will forgive me right. You’re UM most of the time to me. Genius is like composting, requiring three things, organic material, air and moisture. And the sweetest soil is the product, nurturing delectable treats in the garden of life. These guys are genius as…. Well that analogy is not going anywhere.
UM’s genius is a combination of discipline and work ethic, crossed with collaboration and innovation. No band works harder at their craft and you can see it in intricately planned set lists, even more intricate dueling musical themes and changing time signatures, and a backdrop of lights that is the best in the business. All of these are integrated into roaring anthems, jazz funk tracks, soaring melodies and technical prowess that can only come from gifts of talent nurtured to flourish through hard work and intense respect.
What makes it so perfect is the integration of all these individual talents into the whole where the whole is greater than the sum the individual parts. Together they can serenade a club or an arena with equal facility. The real magic is bringing improvisation into the mix, both spontaneously and in original compositions as well. No two sets are the same, and they’re disciplined enough to reliably deliver on this seeming impossibility; especially given the challenge of touring some 100 days a year. We fans go crazy hearing them tease us with dropped themes they return to later, or even the next night. Amazingly gifted individuals and spectacular, spectacular performance artists. (I so love Moulin Rouge, and for some reason I am drawn to Umphreys in the same way. I guess I just love the smell of adrenaline and perfume in the evening,, especially in the Sunshine State!) When I try to describe them I find myself using words like virtuosic, tour de force, savant, and I simply run out of suitable superlatives. My thesaurus is ill-equipped for their magnificence.
OK, so besides all the gushing about how great they are, how is it also possible they can be so damn approachable. That may be more the headline than their musical erudition, given that genius isn’t typically all that nice in the interpersonal realm. I’ve had a chance, nooby groupie that I am, to have met most of them, as well as some of their crew, and I am always taken with how sweet they are. You can just feel it in their open smiles, their handshakes, their authenticity, even their autographs, the sincerity with which they interact with the audience. These guys are more than the real deal. They invented the real deal and we fans are blessed for having found their music. Blessed.
That all said, their music can be daunting, hey nobody said joy was going to be easy? And that’s what I sometimes hear when I turn friends on to them, hell even talking to the phish royalty, and they’re hardly troglodytes. It’s intense, it’s complicated, it’s inventive, it’s never the same two times over, it requires thought, sustained intensity, even concentration, and their music requires you to be up and dancing. (I almost said “almost” there!) Some people just like their music served, delivered on a platter with a clearly marked label, same song is the same song every time you turn it on. The word is anodyne. I can’t put my finger on it, and I don’t want to be arrogant as I’m likely wrong, but I feel like I am in on a secret because I have discovered and fallen in love with Umphreys. Is that wrong? Who the fuck cares, it’s my party, strike that, it’s OUR PARTY. Yes their music can intimidate. But go with it, surrender yourself and feel the bliss, fly high, just one time and you’ll never go back.
That all said, I’ll lay claim that they are the most under-rated band out there today. Let’s agree to define under-rated as the delta between a band’s talent and the average potential fan’s awareness. If you have been keeping score you have seen them grow from a local favorite, one that has an impossible task of feeding Chicagoland’s demand they have created over the years, to a national cult favorite, to something more today. We may be seeing the end of the beginning. 2015 is the fucking revolution like I said. The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed as William Gibson said. I’m going out on a limb and predicting Umph 3.0 is around the corner. Fewer shows, larger venues, the success Umphreys deserves as a true super group. THE band for the 21st century. But it will change things a little, you know? So for now, I’m going to enjoy what I have, which is a once in a lifetime chance to hear, dance, party, rage, celebrate with my fellow UMPhreaks in the sweet halls and amphis we presently enjoy. Seen it happen before. Fingers crossed. I want both supergroup bounty for Umph and I want them all to myself at the same time. Is that wrong? Sorrynotsorry!