On this date 15 years ago, I went out on a Thursday night (a school night, mind you) to see a band for the first time. Umphrey’s McGee was playing a show at the Magic Bag in Ferndale, which is just a 30-minute drive or so from where I grew up. A decade and a half later, and I’ve seen that same band 115 times in 15 different states and three countries outside of the US. It’s been one helluva ride, that’s for sure. Here are some of the highlights and ridiculous moments from 15 years of Umphrey’s McGee concerts.
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How I Got Into UM
I was pretty into trading Phish and Grateful Dead shows on CD in high school (yes I’m that old), and someone had tossed in a freebie show on one trade from a band called Umphrey’s McGee. It was one of their Halloween shows where the band dressed up as Spinal Tap and played songs from the legendary mock-umentary. I was hooked from the get-go.
While most people know me as a jamband guy, I didn’t actually get into them until I was 15 or so. The first CDs I owned were Metallica, AC/DC, and Def Leopard. One of my favorite shows I’ve ever seen was Tool. Considering my love for hard rock/heavy metal and improvisational jam-rock, it’s no wonder I love the Umph.
Now it’s time to go through some highlights from my decade and a half of following the band around.
The First Shows
When I turned 18 my junior year of high school, it opened up a whole new world of live music possibilities. As luck would have it, my fist 18+ show that I attended turned out to be Umphrey’s at the Magic Bag. It was a school night, but that sure as hell wasn’t going to stop me.
As none of my friends had turned 18 yet, I hopped in my mini-van and drove myself out there. The band actually played their song “Get in the Van” early on in the first set, which UM fans use as a rallying cry to convince friends to come out to a show or go on tour. We’ve actually borrowed the phrase on the website as well, as it pretty much sums up what our philosophy on travel – “Don’t think about it, just get in the van!”
That first show was fun, but naturally I didn’t really “get it” on the first go. Just two months later, UM was back at the Magic Bag and a few friends were 18 and willing to join. It was another school night, but this time I was ready to party. I promptly washed the big Xs off my hands and casually strolled up to the bar to order a beer. And it worked! Uh oh. I told my buddy he was driving home that night and proceeded to think I was the coolest guy ever by drinking Bell’s Winter White Ales at a rock show.
Something really interesting happened at that show. During the set break, I may or may not have indulged in some recreational chemistry in the bathroom with a guy dressed like Santa Claus. Christmas was right around the corner, and St. Nick was feeling generous. I remember finally getting home and just laying down in the snow, as psychedelic snowflakes fell all around me. Needless to say, I had to get called in sick for the first half day of school. Whoops…
A few months later, I managed to convince some friends to GITV and skip our senior prom to go to the 2004 edition of the Summer Camp Music Festival. It was one of the best decisions we ever made, even if the epic storm that forced them to evacuate the park made us miss the UM late night in the barn. I still haven’t seen them play their cover of Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long,” and I’m still butt-hurt about it.
Despite missing that set, we had a blast at our first SCamp. Camping out, playing frisbee, drinking heady beers, and spending all day grooving to live music beat the hell out of some lame ass prom. As you may have noticed by now, music festivals have played a huge role in our lives, as we actually met at one in 2008. Summer Camp in particular still feels like going home for me, and I’m proud to be one of the Camp Counselors working the festival these days.
Just a couple weeks after Summer Camp, me and some friends drove down to Tennessee for Bonnaroo. The lineup was great that year, with Trey Anastasio Band, Primus, Ween, and of course Umphrey’s. The band got a coveted late-night spot and proceeded to absolutely melt faces with their marathon set, which continues to live in UM lore. I’ll never forget stumbling back to my tent around sunrise, laying down, and faintly hearing the sounds of the band rip through “Mulche’s Odyssey” to end their set. Even a bag of shrooms couldn’t get me through that 4+ hour rock show.
Smell the Mitten
That fall, I moved into my dorm at MSU. Right before heading up to school, we traveled out to Vermont to bid farewell to our favorite band. Phish was breaking up, and they had the worst festival ever in the process. I was about to embark on the most carefree years of my life, and I needed a new band to follow around.
Only two months into the school year, UM played a trio of shows in Michigan. First up, we headed back home to catch the band in Detroit. When we went in early to buy our tickets, we saw a few of the guys drinking beers and bowling. We went up and said hi and told them we were doing all three shows that weekend. Their response – “Don’t you guys have class or something?” It wouldn’t be the last time we hit a consecutive run of shows in college.
From Detroit, we drove to the other side of the state to catch them in Grand Rapids on a Thursday. The next night, they came to our campus to play a free show for students. Each student who attended could also bring in one guest, which led to a hilarious scene of hippies outside trying to trade college kids drugs in order to be their +1.
I’ll always love that I can look back on all these shows and say that I once saw Umphrey’s McGee play at the Taco Bell on my campus, and that I pre-gamed in my dorm room before the show.
Over the next several years, I would catch about a dozen shows in Michigan. UM always brought their A game to Michigan, probably because two of the band members are from there. Yes, Michigan, the feeling is forever!
To ring in 2005, I headed to Chicago with a crew to see two nights of UM at the Riviera Theater. In one of the most absurd moments in the 115 shows I’ve seen, I managed to drop a brand new digital camera into a cup of beer when someone bumped into me on the floor. Best of all, I managed to return it without it being flagged for water damage. Phew.
I had such a good time celebrating New Year’s with Umphrey’s that I decided to do it four years in a row. Each year, it seemed like more and more friends wanted to join in the party. The band moved the party to the Aragon Ballroom (which sucks, by the way) in 2005 and kept it there for those three years.
Those NYE runs were tons of fun and a major part of my college years. I still laugh thinking about 10 of us sleeping on a friend’s floor, ordering deep dish pizza at 6AM on New Year’s Day. I haven’t caught an UM NYE run since 2007, but that might change this year if we make it to Atlanta.
It wasn’t just NYE that got me to Chicago for an Umph concert. There were the Navy Pier shows in September ’05, which were awesome. There was that one time I saw them play at the beautiful Chicago Theater, which is one of the best venues in the city. And who can forget that time UM and the Biscuits played a free show at the freaking Lincoln Park Zoo? What a shit show that was!
The same weekend as the zoo show, I saw one of my Top 3 UM concerts. They threw down an absolute heater at the Vic Theater, a venue they had outgrown but returned to for one last blowout. There was also that time we saw them at the Taste of Chicago food festival, which was a ridiculous day. It’s always a good time when UM plays their honorary hometown of Chicago, and I gotta get back to the Windy City for another show sooner than later.
My college years nicely coincided with a time where UM was touring primarily in the midwest. From East Lansing, that meant we had plenty of chances to see the band within a 5-6 hour drive. Thanks to our love for the Umph, we traveled to other Big 10 towns like Champaign, Madison, Bloomington, and Columbus.
On one particularly memorable run, we went from Columbus to Cincinnati to Champaign. Our friend threw a little keg party at her place in C-Bus, and even with a group of us we couldn’t finish the keg. Rather than let it sit there to go skunky, we threw it in the trunk the next day and poured cups along the way to Cincy. Mobile Keg Ter FTW!
There were so many epic moments at those midwest shows that it would take me hours to write about them all. Those trips with my friends around the midwest seeing UM were so much fun and such a big part of my life in those years. From absolute ragers at the Canopy Club, to those insane 2-night runs in Madtown, to being there for the recording of their live album in Indy, those runs were always a blast.
Jam in the Dam
My freshmen year at State, Umphrey’s announced a new destination event called Jam in the Dam. For an Umphreak stoner in college, this was a dream come true. It took a fair bit of hustling, but we somehow managed to pull it off. We went to the student travel agency, booked flights to Amsterdam, and bought a few tickets for the festival.
As the shows fell right after our Spring Break, we decided to extend ours and make it two weeks. We skipped a week of classes and flew across the pond to Amsterdam. Over the next few days, we cycled around the city from coffee shop to coffee shop, toured the Heineken brewery, saw the Van Gogh Museum, and partied hard every night.
Looking back on it, that trip was a huge one. It was the first time I traveled internationally without parents or other chaperones. It was also the first time I planned my own trip and the first time I ever stayed in a hostel. It’s crazy looking back on all this travel I’ve done over the years and realizing that it all started with skipping class for a rock show. While I went specifically for UM, I ended up leaving a huge Biscuits fan as well. And what do you know – I ended up falling for a lady at Camp Bisco a few years later.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve seen UM at several other festivals around the US. In addition to Summer Camp and Bonnaroo, I’ve seen them play at Langerado, All Good, Camp Bisco, Gathering of the Vibes, and Lockn’. If I told you all the stories from all those festivals, this post would be a freaking novel.
I’ll just say that some of the best UM shows I’ve ever seen have been at festivals. The band always looks at a festival crowd as a chance to gain new fans, and they always go full throttle. If you ever see Umphrey’s on the lineup for a festival you’re going to, be sure to check them out. You won’t be disappointed. One festival that does deserve its own subheading, though, is…
Before there was Electric Forest, there was Rothbury. For two summers in a row, an absolutely incredible music festival was held in western Michigan over the 4th of July weekend. At that first Rothbury in ’08, I met a cute blonde girl from Tennessee, and the rest is history.
While UM wasn’t there that first year, they were a last-minute addition to the 2009 edition. I had just gotten back from my first year in China and started traveling the country with Rachel on our Summer of Bruce. That Rothbury was such a massive reunion of friends for me, and really felt like a homecoming party.
Walking from the Dead while fireworks raged over head on my way to an UM late night remains one of the best nights of music of my life. That was one of several times over the last 15 years that this band has brought me to tears.
4th of July
Rothbury wasn’t the only time I saw UM over the 4th of July weekend. In 2005, we drove south of Chicago to Naperville to see the band play at a festival called Ribfest. Umphrey’s, fireworks, and ribs. ‘Merica, fuck yeah!
Two years later, Umph rolled into Muskegon on the 4th of July. A friend was living there for the summer and hosted about 20 of us for a massive party before walking to the show. That was one for the ages, and we still managed to make it to Chicago and Milwaukee the next two nights.
While all of those were great, it’s hard to top seeing Umphrey’s play at Red Rocks to celebrate America’s Independence Day. That’s exactly what we did in 2016, which marked just our 2nd trip to the legendary venue after seeing Phish there in 2009. UM has that weekend locked down at Red Rocks now, so definitely check them out there if you get the chance.
Once again, UM convinced me and some friends to make a very irresponsible decision in college. When they announced they’d be playing at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica with the Disco Biscuits, we knew we had to go. After one particularly drunken night out on the town, we pulled the trigger and booked a room.
Escaping to Jamaica from the bitter cold Michigan winter was exciting enough, never mind the four nights of music and free flow drinks on the beach. Let’s just say there were no shortage of shenanigans in Jamaica, and it remains one of, if not the most fun live music event I’ve ever been to.
To start the trip, the bus driver pulled over and busted out a gigantic bag of weed. Then there was the non-stop porn on the TVs, as it was a swingers resort. And who can forget that ridiculously strong Everproof rum they drink down there? Hippies were getting full bottles of champagne from the bar and popping them off in the crowd. I’ll never forget being spun out riding the waterslide through the bar at least twenty times in a row. What a trip that was!
Five years later, Rachel and I were living in Beijing. We were working our assess off teaching English and had saved quite a bit of money. When they announced Holidaze in Mexico, we decided to take a vacation and go for it. It seemed a bit silly flying from Beijing all the way to Cancun, but we went for it.
Since we traveled so far, we decided to make a trip out of it and bounce around Mexico. Before hitting the resort, we visited Chichen Itza, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Valladolid. It sparked our love for Mexico and has a lot to do with why we eventually moved there. They’re bringing Holidaze back to Mexico this year, and it’s something we’re highly considering.
Halloween Mash Ups
For several years, Umphrey’s did a mash-up themed show for Halloween. The band all dressed in mash-up costumes (think Incredible Hulk Hogan and Pamela Anderson Cooper) and played mash-up songs like “Electric Avenue to Hell” combining AC/DC and Eddy Grant.
We only made it to one Halloween run, in the fall of 2013 in Milwaukee. In keeping with the theme, we had some sweet mash-up costumes as well. I as Luke SkyWalker Texas Ranger and Rachel was Princess Diana Ross. It was a wild three night stand at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee and our last run of shows before starting our gap year in Southeast Asia.
It’s fitting that we end this post with Summer Camp. Now that we live out of the country and spend most of our free time planning travels to new places, we don’t make it home for a ton of shows. Thanks to my gig as a Camp Counselor at Summer Camp, though, I’m guaranteed four nights of music festival bliss every Memorial Day weekend.
SCamp is basically an UM fest these days, as they co-headline it with moe. and play 3-4 shows over the weekend. There’s also the Golden Ticket giveaway, the sunrise kickball game, and more. It’s the best festival for an UM fan, and I’m so happy to be a part of it. We may not catch any more UM shows this year, but at least I know I have a weekend full of rock to look forward to next May.
After writing all that out, it’s really hard to believe that all those memories come from a simple CD trade back in high school. I took a chance by driving out to see a band I didn’t know much about, by myself, in high school.
That band is responsible for some of the best nights of my life. They’ve taken me to over a dozen states and to three foreign countries. From tiny dive venues, to perhaps the most beautiful one in the entire country, and all points in between, it’s been a wild ride. Hell, my wife even walked down the aisle to an Umphrey’s McGee song! To say that they’ve had a big impact on my life is a vast understatement.
Thanks for the memories, UM. Here’s to 15 more years of rocking and traveling. I’ll leave you with one of the most glorious moments I’ve experienced in 115 Umphrey’s McGee shows: