A Headphones Jam With Umphrey's McGee in New York

Umphrey's McGee
Chad Smith
Umphrey's McGee perform in Rothbury, Michigan.
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My seat at the Beacon Theater for the January 18th show by the Chicago-based progressive-rock-with-pop-and-jams band Umphrey's McGee was in the fourth row of the lower balcony. But I heard the first set from inside the soundboard – through headphones.

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It is the latest addition to the fan experience – audio immersion. At recent concerts, including their two Beacon gigs last weekend, Umphrey's McGee – singer-guitarist Brendan Bayliss, bassist Ryan Stasik, guitarist Jake Cinninger, keyboard player Joel Cummins, drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag – have offered access to an in-venue broadcast of the board mix that is subsequently used for live CDs, downloads and streaming at umlive.net, the group's concert archive. For $40 (plus a deposit), ticketholders can rent Audio Technica headphones and a Sennheisher wireless-monitor pack that picks up the signal from the front-of-house console. The price includes a download of the show. (Go to umphreys.com for more information.) 

The caveats: Only 20 sets of packs-and-phones were available per night at the Beacon. And the signal is only guaranteed to work within 200 feet of the soundboard – a possible issue if the band ever headlines Yankee Stadium and your seat is up in a LaGuardia flight path.

Alone Together?

I started the night the usual way, just eyes and ears, until Umphrey's manager Vincent Iwinski dropped by my spot and loaned me his gear for a taste of "Headphones & Snowcones" (the program is named after an instrumental on Umphrey's McGee's 2002 album, Local Band Does O.K.). It was disorienting at first to watch the musicians play the notes fifty feet away but experience the harmonized tangle and spires of Bayliss and Cinninger's guitars with that distance removed, as if I was crouched in front of their amps. The audience was a side show, of course, in the headphones, even when the balcony choir around me joined Bayliss in the jumping chorus of "In the Kitchen" from 2004's Anchor Drops.

Yet any feeling of isolation quickly fell away. I don't chat during the music at shows anyway; I like to listen, hard. And this was a unique concentration, a close, immediate way into the kind of details that can make my night: the union of David Gilmour's stiletto-treble poise and Eddie Van Halen's torrential shredding in Cinninger's exuberant, extended breaks; the empathic precision with which the band turns in the segues. And it was nothing like hearing a live album at home, as both sets featured gig staples ("Syncopated Strangers," "Glory") not on Umphrey's McGee's official studio or concert releases. The opening song of the night was, in fact, a debut: a bright, new package called "October Rain."

Fun Without Headphones

I did the second set old-school. So did the band, uncorking a series of classic-rock cover teases; "Resolution" came with a chunk of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and a sleek jamming on the vocal-sitar riff in the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." The two-song encore included more Beatles – all of "I Am the Walrus."

At one point, Bayliss noted that the Beacon engagement marked an anniversary: Umphrey's McGee first played in this city 15 years earlier, at the late, downtown jam-band haven Wetlands. But while I first wrote about the group a little after that, as potential arena heirs to Phish, the bands that came to mind at the Beacon during the long instrumental stretches of "All in Time" and "Ocean Billy" were Weather Report – with less overt jazz and more Seventies-rock chops – and Frank Zappa's early-Eighties touring combos, with more smiles.  Cinninger and Bayliss both soloed at length but did not noodle, spinning out from hooks in the songs with melodic assurance. And there was always an ascending, dancing energy in the rhythms, no matter the math. There was nothing straightforward, in the guitars or time, of "Miss Tinkle's Overture," an instrumental "hit" from Anchor Drops, blown up over twice its studio size at the Beacon. And there was nothing reserved.

I didn't need headphones to hear that. I wouldn't have minded either. I had a fine night both ways.