An historic transition is underway in the music industry. The digital age is causing the rapidly occurring obsolescence of solid-state media – records, CDs, and the like – right before our eyes. It's sink or swim time for the recording industry and artists alike: either get on board and innovate your marketing for the 21st century, or cling to a dying system and go down with the ship. Fortunately for the music-loving public, intelligent artists are choosing to swim, often leaving their record labels behind in favor of more consumer-driven approaches, despite the fact that the Recording Industry of America seems to be choosing the sink option.
Soon we will see the John McCains of the music world, people who refuse to embrace the new technologies that young people across the planet cling to like life support, denied office in favor of the Obama-like artists who recognize the change on the wind, and are smart enough to be heading in the right direction when it hits. Sorry, but being so soon after Inauguration Day, a political analogy seemed appropriate.
Expanding upon the good ideas of bands like Radiohead, who originally released their newest album In Rainbows in a pay-what-you-think-its-worth scheme, the perpetual innovators of Umphrey's McGee find themselves at the forefront of a completely unique movement in music promotion. Umphrey's newest album, Mantis, which was released on Inauguration Day, truly puts the power in the hands of the fans – the more people who order the disc; the more bonus content is made available to everyone. It's kind of like socialism in a way, at least how socialism is supposed to be. Everybody works for the common good and everyone benefits to the same degree. Spread the word about the album, convince your friends to buy it too, and everyone reaps the extra benefits!
Not surprisingly, the response to Mantis has been tremendous.
Umphrey's McGee is currently touring in support of the new album. On the way, the band did a three-night stint in Colorado, with stops in Fort Collins, Boulder, and Denver. Yours truly was on hand for the band's mammoth show at the historic Boulder Theater, and from what I was able to tell, the fan response to the tour is as big or bigger than it is to UM's new album. Again, this is no surprise for a band of this caliber. The Umphrey's movement has built up a tidal wave of devotees over the years, and the theater was awash with Umphrey's swag – hats, tees, posters, even tattoos. Also in attendance were more than a few people willing to get out on the road and follow the band wherever they may go. Several people in my immediate vicinity had been to the Fort Collins show the night before, and were heading down to the Fillmore in Denver the night after, to get a full dose of UM just because they could. Others talked of heading out to places like Madison or San Francisco to catch more Umphrey's, and pretty much everyone spoke animatedly of UM concerts past.
The other thing everyone talked about was Mantis, and exactly according to the grand plan, friends were busy convincing the few people who had yet to buy the album to get on the ball, talking up all the extras they'd already tapped into, and wondering what else would surface as the year goes by.
When I entered the theater, it smelled as though I stepped into the middle of a Cheech and Chong marathon. The band had just gone onstage, rattling the walls as they tore through 'Made to Measure' (the first track off the new album), and only the explosion of light and colors coming from the stage lights could match the intensity of the explosion of energy that occurred in the crowd. The theater was packed wall to wall, but somehow I managed to make it up front, and after only 10 or so minutes of squeezing, pushing, and generally being a dick to all the people who had flooded the theater prior to show time (not something I'm proud of, but hopefully the photos I took will be worth it).
Welcome to Planet Umphrey's, an alien world on our own planet, transformed and molded into a psychedelic landscape by a group of six sonic experts from Chicago. Last time UM came through town, they did an all acoustic fan-club show, which was a ton of fun in its own right, but was a whole different animal from the fully electric, full body experience that is UM's signature. This was the real deal – if you weren't sucked in completely to this new and more colorful world, you were probably dead or tripping way too hard to notice.
The real brilliance of Umphrey's McGee is not in the way they market their albums, it's the way they blend elements from nearly every musical genre imaginable and make them sound as though they were meant to be together. Jazzy arpeggios twinkle alongside heavy metal riffs, deep house beats drive catchy pop tunes, blues-infused lead guitar augments high-energy dance tracks, and 80's glam rock finds a new home alongside 60's inspired psychedelia. A massive banner featuring the barbed wire cover art for Mantis hung behind the players, illuminated periodically with vivid blue, orange, and green lights, swirling around like something cosmic seen through a kaleidoscope, and framing the band's members in dramatic relief. The impact was dizzying, a visual experience as much as an auditory one. If you've never seen it, it may be impossible to imagine.
After a strong opening, UM jammed their way straight through 'Jimmy Stewart' and 'White Man's Moccasins,' pausing only for dramatic effect before launching into 'Partyin' Peeps,' followed by 'Walletsworth' and 'Morning Song' sandwiched in the middle of 'Nothing Too Fancy.' The second half of 'Nothing Too Fancy' grew exponentially, building into a towering flurry of sonic euphoria courtesy of Jake Cinninger's wailing lead guitar. It was the climax of only the first set, and as bold an ending as any band out there could muster. At this point, the promise of a second set seemed almost too good to be true.
Fortunately it wasn't too good to be true, and the second set turned out to be as powerful as the first. When the boys came back on stage, they dove into another Mantis track, 'Spires,' before hitting the old favorites like '2x2,' 'Mail Package,' 'Soul Food I,' and 'Ocean Billy.' The second climax, which somehow managed to top the intensity of the first, thundered out like a punch in the face during an extended, nonstop jam through 'Alex's House' and '1348.' The latter of these is also off the new album, and word on the street is that this was the song's first live appearance. The crowd went absolutely nucking futs.
Two full sets of high-octane musical mischief and mayhem, and the good times still rolled on. After a brief break, Umphrey's McGee took the stage one last time to huge applause. The lights erupted into the atmosphere once more, and the crowd dug out the passion and energy to rock out as hard as they could through two more songs, 'Mulche's Oddyssey,' and cover of Led Zeppelin's 'Immigrant Song' (and anyone who has read my stuff before knows how much I adore Zeppelin!). Even after all that, 3.5 hours of some of the most uniquely visceral music on the market today, the crowd could hardly believe it was over. Trickling out of the theater slowly enough to rush back in should the band decide to do a surprise second encore (they didn't), I rode a wave of deafening ecstasy and giddiness out into the street, nearly walking out in front of a passing car in the process. It was time for the unpleasant part, disembarking from Planet Umphrey's and coming back down to Planet Earth. But there is comfort on the horizon, for it is almost a certainty that Planet Umphrey's will pass by here again someday – but that day can't possibly come soon enough.