We rose some time after dawn in a small bed and breakfast lodge in Sacramento and I was still suffering a bit of barrel fever from all the whiskey I’d drowned myself in the night before. We had traveled East from San Francisco through the night to get a jump on the day. We’d be riding plum through the Sierra Nevada’s where the mountains and clouds met. A heavy snow was expected as delivered by a rider from the North country. Luckily our carriage was covered and we had some 300 steed to pull it through the treacherous climb to the summit for we shan’t be ending up like another party who traveled this path from the opposite direction: the Donners. Our destination was Reno, that desert oasis like a diamond in the sand held the promise of booze, gambling, women and a good old fashioned hootenanny. Word had it that two of the hottest musical guns in the west, Umphrey’s McGee and Cornmeal would be blazing through some ditties at a little saloon called The Knitting Factory. It was a good word.
The streets of Reno were unsettlingly quiet for a Sunday afternoon, as most folk would go straight to the poker hall after church in a town like this. Today though, a tumbleweed could blow straight through downtown without hitting a soul. Weeks before we arrived, we reserved a room by mail at an old lodge just a small walk from the halls, as not to attract too much attention to ourselves. We knew, as did everyone else it seemed, there was going to be a showdown on this supposed day of rest and we wanted all the time we could to prepare. We knew Reno would be.
The Knitting Factory served their drinks by the bucket with cocktails the size of a San Franciscan beer, a man could drink enough whiskey here to lose sight of everything that was ever important to him. Of course, Reno wouldn’t have it any other way. The dance floor had a small gathering on it for the rowdy bluegrass get down of Cornmeal. The band tore through some rambunctious bluegrass chanties before settling into a groove to let the fastest fiddle slinger in the Midwest, Allie Krall draw her weapon and lay havoc to the helpless audience. It was like shootin’ fish in a barrel, but every buckaroo was left as pleased as a pup with two tails. I swear I even saw a lightning storm gathering up behind them as they reached their final jam which soared through the building. And that ain’t no tale.
By the time Umphrey’s McGee came out to take the stage, the room was chock-full and disordered as a bag of nails and I couldn’t tell which way was up or down from all the folks who had gathered. The whiskey and indian tobaccy probably didn’t help my cause none either but my memory is clear as a glass. They opened the set with the tune “Spires,” which came from the Mantis songbook, picking up speed as it goes along. Leaving it unfinished they started abruptly into the ambling beginning of “The Bottom Half,” before elevating to the smoking hot dual guitar section which jammed right into a funky guitar shoot out back and forth between guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss before capping it off with the catchy ending of the “The Bottom Half.”
Surprised by the turnout for a Sunday night, the band stopped to show some appreciation for all those in attendance before treating us to the manic funk of “Tribute to the Spinal Shaft.” A slow jam inside of it built with intensity unleashing Jake Cinninger’s flurry of molten guitar licks before seemlessly dropping into the somber “Morning Song;” about getting over that angelica who rode off on another path. Quickly lightening the mood they returned with the bouncy, funky “Kabump” whose jammy groove section flowed perfectly into a rare syncopated treat entitled “Q-Bert” that speeds up in the middle into a nasty unison run up and down a funky riff. The blues piano styling of Joel Cummins were featured momentarily before returning to a stiffer layered jam and a heavy drop into the chaotic beginning of “Andy’s Last Beer.” The audience was clearly enough sheets to the wind to call it their last beer as the band members led us struggling through the clapping section. It could’ve just been the altitude, but I doubt it.
“JaJunk” started the next set with a fury and lighting director Jefferson Waful started pulling aces out of his sleeve early into the first jam as smoke poured onto the stage leaving the audience staring down the barrels of his Mac III cannon rainbow. The jam consequently started off as a 90’s gangsta funk ditty in the vein of Dr. Dre, a Wild West maverick of another era. This was jammed between blazing rock and roll assaults by outlaw guitar duo Cinninger and Bayliss. A dirty R&B funk hoe-down ensued as every body in the place shimmied and shook viciously to the groove. An exciting build up rock jam followed with more Cinninger licks before Bayliss joined in. Harmonized guitar licks shot out of the speakers like a gattling gun! The massacred audience took a breath as Umphrey’s dropped into the jazzy reggae of “Higgins.”
Lights chased each other over the stage as Waful, who fit the small area with as many as it could possibly hold, followed the band closely through every change, creating new eye candy that helped tell the tale of the jam. They started into another improvised section inside of “Higgins.” A syncopated beat by Kris Myers led into a spacey jam propelled by the tightly linked rhythms of Kris Myers and Andy Farag on the drum kits. Bayliss and Cinninger picked up quickly on the message and started off on further dual guitar exploration as the pace picked up to an excited level before dropping back down into an eerie return by Bayliss into the verse of “Higgins” before launching into it’s furious finale and a no hesitation segue right back into the rallying part two of “JaJunk.” Their reggae remix “Turn and Dub” was selected next and dedicated to the spirit of their friend Mike Callahan which held only a few moments of jam before a short jaunt through the uplifting beauty of “Kimble” before settling into the four-to-the-floor jamboree “The Triple Wide.” An unmistakable riff started by bass guitar wrangler, Ryan “Pony” Stasik turned into the “Ghost Busters” theme before rolling right back into the synthy goodness of Joel Cummins in “Triple Wide” to end the set.
The band returned to for the encore, drew their weapons and Cinninger fired off the opening chords of “Can’t You See” by Marshall tucker and laid it on thick with both an amazing vocal performance and perfect guitar work that left the audience in pieces. I closed my eyes and reminisced about “that woman” and what she’s been doing to me and wished like hell that she was there to do it to me now as the music washed over soul. After an intense show, those who braved the night to its bitter end were crowned as “Partyin’ Peeps” and treated to the celebratory number before packing it in to hit the tables.
There you have it folks. The tale of how the West was fun. We’ll be catching up with Umphrey’s again down the trail in Colorado for a show in Aspen on Friday and Denver on Saturday. If ya’ll straight shooters can’t make it to the Rocky Mountain state, join us back here on Kindweb. We’d be much obliged to have ya.