Crossing the Great Divide

Why Umphrey’s McGee is the Best Live Rock Show Ever


As I sit here with a fresh digital screen in front of me, revisiting my first visit to SummerCamp Music Festival, which occurred in 2012, I am still in awe. I was front and center for this show, riding the rail with my older and much more sober brother. Scottie has been a huge influence on me musically, starting from when I would steal cassette tapes from his collection, sometimes getting him in trouble for what I was being exposed to (for my younger readers, cassette tapes were what music existed on before the internet (for readers even younger than that, there was a time before the internet)). It wasn’t his fault, I was just naturally drawn to the edgier things that got a rise out of our more conventional counterparts.

Summercamp Hippies
Dirty Hippies at Summer Camp | Photo by Stormie Lantis

At the dinner table one night, unbeknownst to our mother, I started reciting rhymes from 2 Live Crew’s famous debut album, lines I had memorized in just the few short hours in which I possessed my older brother’s tape. As I spoke the words “Abraham Lincoln was a good old man”, the dawning of realization spread across his face, and he knew what was about to happen. But, fuck it all, he embraced it.

“Go ahead, Brian, what’s the rest of it?” He goaded me, pressed me, and, of course, our mother, who was sitting at the table with us, pressed me further.

“Yeah, Brian, what’s the rest?” World War III broke out in my household shortly thereafter, and for a good time after that, Scottie was nowhere to be found. He split, and I don’t blame him. For a little while, I blamed myself, since that fight started because I got into his shit. But, as time went by, I learned to accept his choices as his own.

And then I found out what he was up to all that time.

This motherfucker got to follow Jerry.

Scottie bailed on conventional life just in time to catch the last couple of years of Jerry Garcia and his band of Merrymakers. Lucky prick. He scored a job with a lighting and sound crew that, in some ridiculously fortunate aligning of the stars and planets, ended up setting the stage for the Grateful Dead on a couple of their last few shows on the East Coast. At one of these shows, someone shoved some hallucinogens into his mouth and, having a truly enviable experience, off he went. Fuck me, I wish I could have seen and heard and felt what he did. I shouldn’t be so lucky. The closest I will ever get to the feeling that Jerry made millions feel is to go to a Dark Star Orchestra show, and close my eyes and imagine. But, I’ll take it.

Ah, but, Scottie got to see it. No, he got to hear it. To FEEL it. He was there, man. Maybe it was after the Dead were in their prime, but he can say “When Jerry forgot the words, you knew it was going to be a helluva show”. He could hear the drops of water fall from Jerry’s fingertips as they twiddled around the upper frets on his Gibson SG during “Looks Like Rain”. He felt Phil’s bass pound against his chest during “Fire on the Mountain”. He actually witnessed a good “Scarlet Begonias” before some Long Beach ska band butchered it.

Then Jerry died.

Millions of dirty stinky patchouli-wearing dread-headed hippies swore to Buddha that the music died that day. And then there were the fuckers who resigned themselves to the lives that they had already been living. The 80’s yuppies acting sallow, as if they had maintained the lifestyle they had been so adamant about living decades before, once part of a revolution that was, at its core, so against everything they had become. Acting as if they had lost something.

Ask the people who left the Dead lots and moved over to the Phish lots. Something was lost. Sure, there were plenty of ripoffs on Shakedown before Jerry died. But, the crowd was different. The music was different. The vibe was different.

Scottie loves one of the shorter stories he has to share (and a short story is hard to come by when it comes to him). Once, at a Phish show, shortly after Jerry died, a Deadhead turns to him and says “It just isn’t the Dead, man.” And Scottie, the wise and eminent sage that he is, says “Look at your ticket stub, man” and goes on dancing.

Point taken, Scottie.

Now, here we are. Phish has broken up and reunited. Again. We have String Cheese and moe. and Further and Ratdog and Les Claypool and Phil and Phriends and… fuck, man, we have all manner of people ready and willing to tickle our psychedelic and prog rock fancies. There is never a shortage of shows that I can go to that will satisfy my hunger for good music.

But, I will never ever get to see Jerry. The man with the band that started it all.

I’m okay with that. What’s the point of being upset about something that you can’t change? I can go onto YouTube and watch the Dead and Zappa and anybody else I wasn’t born in time to see. I can hook my laptop up to my TV and watch these performances in HD with soundboard quality audio. I can (almost) experience these things as if I was there in person. So, what am I missing out on, right?

Short answer, I’m not missing out on anything. I have Umphrey’s.

Umphreys Mcgee
Umphrey’s at Summer Camp 2014

Umphrey’s McGee, a band that has it all. You want funk? We got the funk. You want rock? We’ll rock your face off. You want some metal? Nobody brings it harder. Hip-hop, electronica, jazz, R&B, industrial, reggae, what do you want? You can get it. And more. All mashed up into one sonic assault that keeps their lighting tech on a good cardio regimen.

I first saw Phish at Hampton Coliseum in 1996. That show also happened to be the first time I ever scored good LSD. I was 16 years old. On their “breakup tour”, they played the Mothership “one last time”. I was there. I was there for the Va Beach “Terrapin”. Alpine Valley on their reunion tour. All were great shows.

But Umph is where it’s at.

Umphrey’s McGee, you motherfuckers. Yeah, Brendan, Jake, Ryan, Joel, Chris, Andy, Waful, Kevin, (that’s not in any order), I’m talking to you. Thank you. You guys are always so in groove with each other, and it is contagious (like Stasik’s crabs). When I am in the crowd, regardless of if I’m on the floor or balcony, by soundboard or on the rail, you guys always get me amped up.

Which brings me back to SummerCamp 2012. I first saw Umphrey’s in 2008 (again, my brother making sure that I had good music in my life). I just didn’t know what I was in for. Listening back, that first show at the Kalamazoo State Theatre is still in my Top 10. I even saw UM for the last performance on Marvin’s Mountaintop (that was a kickass “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, the mountaintop blew up). But, this SummerCamp experience, one where my brother stayed sober the entire time while I partied my ass off, was where I really fell in love with Umphrey’s. We rode the rail for all four sets on Friday and Saturday, and we attended the church set. I still carry around my purple UMVip backpack.

I’ve seen Phish, I’ve seen moe., I’ve seen all the remaining members of the Dead in their various incarnations. I’ve seen some shit, man. Nothing compares. I’ve been to shows where I’ve said “Eh, that was good, but I’ve seen better.” Those are words that I have never uttered leaving an Umphrey’s show.

I only wish my brother had discovered them a little sooner. Thanks, Scottie.

umphreys Mcgee
Umphreys at the Tabernacle NYE 5 night run 2014
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