When Umphrey’s McGee and Galactic share their Rocks gig this holiday weekend, the centerpiece of braided two-nighters which include separate gigs at the Gothic, the two bands will be stirring an unholy elixir of their decidedly divergent life forces into a fan-voted joint mash-up cover.
The Chicago-based Umphrey’s, the prog-jam calculus jocks of the jam scene and Galactic, the slightly evil, very greasy funk conjurers from the Big Easy, go back a long way.
“Yeah, we’ve known those guys for years,” Umphrey’s guitarist Jake Cinninger told us last week, just emerging from a four-day power outage courtesy of a early storm that tore through his western Illinois hometown.
“We go back from the early days of the festival circuit from 10 years ago, so you always look forward to seeing each other when festival season comes back around. … It’s like all the bands coming together in one communal environment. It’s so different from your normal tour grind.
“We’ve had this dialog going over e-mail for quite some time now. And we’re really big into this mashing up of tunes, where you find two songs that have DNA that are closely related. They might be in the same key or same tempo…like, we’ll do the Beatles’ “Come Together” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Come Closer Together,” and the idea is that we’ll play something along the lines of that ideal.”
Fair enough, but this selection looks like it could create some acutely schizophrenic results. “Heartbreaker” and “Master Blaster”? Muses’ “Supermassive Black Hole” and “Heard it Through The Grapevine?” Pink Floyd’s “San Tropez” and “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”? Say what?
“It’s kind of weird the way things end up working. … If you change the key of one song a little bit, sing a ‘San Tropez’ verse over a Michael Jackson beat, you can actually kind of make it work. And it’s not like mashing two recordings; as a group of musicians we can flex and change to the arrangement.”
But this comes as little surprise to the legions of Umphrey’s faithful (self proclaimed “Umphreaks”) — as part of the band’s enduring career-long ethic of teetering on the musical precipice, infusing languid and relaxed jam float-aways with neck-snapping prog figures and eight-minute instrumental calisthenics, the band has also explored new territories in fan interaction. If “new” territories can still mean playing fan-requested sets and mashes.
“We’ve been thinking about different ways we can get our music heard and seen, and for people to be more involved. The old methods just aren’t working so well … like, just cutting a CD. So the idea is to get the fan-base more involved and more tuned in.
We’ll let them choose a few things and we’ll try it out.
“And it can put us in a real vulnerable position, because we really have to pull something out and make it work. So it really forces us to improve a vein for the best, and … the more we do it, the more we learn about it. And after one of those performanceswhere fans text in on this huge screen and we basically do what they say for a half an hour, we’re really exhausted mentally.”
A jaundiced observer may be inclined to dismiss this as a gimmick, a kind of high-tech, show-offy spin on the not so new tradition of, well, playing requests. Hell, ancient Greek lutists did that.
But at the same time, it represents a hallmark of the kind of artistic self-discipline and ambition that has consistently vaunted UM above most of their peers in the post-Phish jam movement, which has produced scads of outfits seemingly content to mirror-gaze into their own improv looking glass. The idea isn’t just to do something the fanslike, but to mine for musical substance in strata well outside the year-in, yearout touring comfort zone. Doing something hard.
“Yeah, we definitely kind of come from that Zappa school of thought, trying to be proficient at your instrument and then being thrown in this pot of scaldingwater and see if you can make something happen.
The actual thing of falling flat on your face a hundred times musically, you actually learn from that. Not everything we do is perfect, because of that.
There’s always going to be room for error, so our fans get to hear the good shows and the not so good shows. Just like anything else, where there’s risk, there’s going to be failure. But … we’re willing to risk a little uncomfortable moment for something glorious.”
And it’s not like the band scrupulously masks its failures. Umphrey’s has a longstanding policy of making every live show available on CD or through download. Every one, since about2004.
The old schooler’s alarm bells go off right about here. There’s a certain spirit of generosity that attends this kind of policy, and the band’s faithful have had this access to live Umphrey’s music so long now it’s hardly news. But we couldn’t help wonder if this vast ocean of live material doesn’t somehow devalue the band’s studio efforts.
“I’m pretty old school, probably the most of the band. I like listening to records, y’know? That’s all I do when I’m at home — I don’t like to even touch anything with ones and zeros. So, I’m into the tangible aspect of listening to music, where it’s a big piece of art and it’s a ritualistic thing where you put the piece of plastic down and drop the needle on it. Like it’s an event. So, with the whole thing of us being known as a live band, the idea is to kind of do both. There’s two coats to wear there.
“For us, it’s really important to kind of separate the two. When it’s time to make a record like [2009’s] Mantis, it’s strictly for the studio, and until it’s done it’s not to be heard. So it becomes an event.
“And they get it, and … there it is.”
On the Bill:
Umphrey’s McGee plays with Galactic at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Saturday, July 3.
Doors at 6 p.m. The Wailers open.
Tickets start at $36. 18300 West Alameda Pkwy., Morrison, 1-800-745-3000 or www.redrocksonline.com.