Old School Method, New School Madness with Umphrey’s McGee
Throughout rock history, bands have followed a simple formula to promote their material: record an album, release said album, then tour in support of that album. But as the dawn of a new era of self-published bands emerges, the rock and roll formula has gone out of fashion. Many of the new self-publishing acts choose instead to try out new material on an audience before ever setting foot into a recording studio. Some groups do this because of a lack of material in the beginning stages of stardom, while others choose this path for more artistic reasons.
One band that might be said to ascribe to the artistic pursuit is Umphrey’s McGee. The term “jam” band might leave an unsavory taste in the mouths of some, but for sheer lack of a better description, that is what I will label the genre to which Umphrey’s belongs. “Jam” is a term that brings to mind several connotations but denotes at the most basic levels an element of extended improvisational musical escapades. Umphrey’s does not escape this part of the definition. The act of test driving different improvisations of the same basic song form in front of a crowd helps Umphrey’s as well as other jam band’s test drive the tunes and gauge audience response. But audiophiles will undoubtedly search out the “live” efforts of there favorite groups and capture the improvisational essence of a song in its infant stages. This undoubtedly leads to a dichotomy between the two income generating spheres of the music industry: record sales and live shows.
A certain level of anticipation is needed in order to assure that the listening audience will delve deep into their wallets and actually pay for music in this MP3, instant gratification world. With the release of all new albums, the first buzz generating step is the release of a single. But few, if any, “jam” bands fit into the on air protocol of many FM radio stations and the audience on the digital airways is limited to those willing to pay for the service. The most dynamic and far reaching form of promotion is the Internet.
Umphrey’s McGee took a bold new (or old) step with the release of their newest album, Mantis. They revived the old rock and roll formula but added a few tweaks to fit the times. They released an expected date and subsequent countdown for the album without playing any material live beforehand. Without a forum for the release of the singles on popular radio, Umphrey’s pre-released three tracks on their own website. They then announced the tour dates in support of the album’s release.
The infusion of old school rock sensibilities was not limited to their strategic album release. Live, Umphrey’s now reincarnates some of the things that a lover of hard-rock might miss in the world of “jam” music as it stands today. Tunes are played with precision and attention to dynamics, solos are assigned and “stepped-on” by other musicians, and the ever present face-melting guitar solo is alive and well within the band’s slick arrangements.
I personally had the opportunity to attend an Umphrey’s McGee show recently and was struck by a few things I had expected as a fan. Instead of relying heavily on new material from Mantis, Umphrey’s played to their base with crowd favorites from past efforts. The tracks from Mantis were dropped sparsely and strategically among a slew of past tested material. It seems that the new album release strategy was meant more to entice money from already existing fans, and not to recruit more into the army. The show I was lucky enough to experience was in Atlanta at the Variety Playhouse on February 20th of 2009. Among the two sets and the encore were only two tunes from the new album, the title track Mantis and Preamble played as a medley. The night before, also at the Variety, Cemetery Walk was the only track featured.
Their onstage performance had all the qualities you would expect from Umphrey’s and from most “jam” bands: long extended improvisations, the combination of two or more songs, and the well-placed and highly appreciative cover. Although many might not notice, there was a slight difference between this tour and those I’ve had the privilege to experience in the past; there was a heavier emphasis on the guitar solo. Yes, all jam bands rely heavily on guitar soloing, and Umphrey’s especially, but this was different. This was the raw, guttural, face-melting shred of the 80s, but with the depth and sensitivity of a true improvisational attitude. To reaffirm this observation, there was even a Van Halen teaser (Eruption) dropped aptly amidst one of the many soaring tap guitar solos. But alas one of the least desirable traits of the “jam” band genre did rear its ugly head that night. “UNTZ!”
Yes, that annoying, robotic, trance-inducing noise that makes sober ears bleed and sends hallucinogenic users to the towering heights of the peak. If you are not aware of this current trend and do not know what it sounds like, just think of any movie or television show that has set a scene inside of a gay bar. Luckily it was for only one jam, but it was at the beginning of the first set, and it was a long one. I’m not sure within what song it started, but it happened. I just gritted my teeth until the worst was over. Once they did their best to satisfy the psyches of those who might need their third eye stroked, they got back to the big-boy music.
Dylan Edwards is a freelance writer specializing in rock music. Dyan is also a multi-instramentalist and song writer. He as followed the music scene for sometime and concideres himself a superfan like the editors of Rock n’ Roll View. Dylan can be reached by email at dylanked at gmail dot com.