Umphrey’s McGee descended upon the ExploreAsheville.com Arena last weekend, February 18-20, for their 2nd Annual Blue Ridge Rockway in Asheville, North Carolina. The band has made some serious noise in Asheville every February for the last four years, making this event highly anticipated. Greensky Bluegrass opened the arena shows on Friday and Saturday, while Umphrey’s had their own intimate performance at The Orange Peel on Sunday night.
Greensky Bluegrass opened the night with a well known favorite, “Windshield”, before diving into an extended “Living Over,” featuring a prominent dobro jam led by Anders Beck while mandolinist Paul Hoffman conducted the remainder of the band. “Letter to Seymour” received a large ovation from the crowd, due to its more traditional bluegrass style and vocal harmonies. Greensky later welcomed Umphrey’s McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins to the stage for “In Control.” The addition of a piano expanded Greensky’s diverse newgrass sound, adding a layer of instrumental depth rarely seen in the genre that this band so often transcends. The Newgrass Revival anthem “Can’t Stop Now” followed, with a “Shout” tease that immersed fans in the performance, sparking memories of the movie National Lampoon’s Animal House. “Miss September” featured an excellent bass driven verse with Hoffman on vocals. An emotional Bruce Springsteen cover, “Atlantic City,” closed Greensky Bluegrass’ first performance of the weekend. The band’s aggressive yet, precise instrumentation lended themselves as a fitting opener for prog-rock titans Umphrey’s McGee.
Umphrey’s McGee eased into the night with “Bathing Digits,” before picking up the energy with “Rocker Part 2.” Next, a nearly 17-minute “Nothing Too Fancy” began ambiently, allowing fans to find their footing before a night of intense prog-rock. After a few minutes of jamming out the intro, the band fluidly transitioned into their harmonized first chorus to cheers from the crowd. “Spires” highlighted guitarist Brendan Bayliss’ vocals, a unique and desirable aspect of the band. An incredible “Atmosfarag” and extended “Der Bluten Kat” followed. For those uninitiated with Jake Cinninger, this was one of those sets where he earned his reputation as a stunt guitarist, meaning he once again stretched his instrument further than previously thought possible.
Guitarist Jake Cinninger opened up the second set with “40’s Theme”, a song beloved by many devoted Umphrey’s fans. The song features playful lyrics from Cinninger and a brief overlapping rap segment with Bayliss. While there aren’t 40 oz. beers sold inside the ExploreAsheville.com Arena, you can be sure fans will be cheering malt beverages to this song for some time.
The highlight of the night came in the form of a Black Sabbath segment from the band, featuring Greensky Bluegrass’ Anders Beck and Paul Hoffman. Opening up with “Black Sabbath”, then enlisting Greensky’s help for “War Pigs”. Hoffman came on stage with arms outstretched in the likeness of Ozzy Osbourne, and belted out the vocals for “War Pigs” while Beck added a unique element with his dobro. The two bands have collaborated in the past multiple times, and their camaraderie on stage makes for a great musical pairing.
Fan favorite “Bad Friday” closed out the night in style, as the whole arena sang along with the band. Hypnotic synthesizer rhythms layered over funky guitar riffs had the whole arena dancing till the last note. The uplifting anthem was a perfect way to end the night, as the lyrics, “just take what you need,” resonated around the room.
The second night began with another stellar opening set from Greensky Bluegrass. Opening the set with “Past My Prime,” the band wasted no time dropping a fan-favorite track. Their take on “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” set the crowd ablaze with invigoration, leaving no fan unenthused. Finishing their set with an extended “Kerosene,” the bluegrass opener didn’t feel one bit out of place opening for prominent prog-rock Umphrey’s McGee.
Umphrey’s McGee began their first set of Saturday night with “Higgins,” known for its doses of reggae combined with the band’s more traditional sound. Umphrey’s closing four song segment blew fans away; with an unfinished “In The Kitchen,” a bust out of “White Man’s Moccasins”, a near 18-minute “Puppet String,” and Paul Hoffman and Anders Beck on stage for an inspirational cover of The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See”. “Puppet String” had Jake Cinninger playing keys instead of holding down lead guitar. It was clear that Umphrey’s McGee was pulling the fans’ puppet string, masters of the marionet.
An incredible “Mulche’s Odyssey” and “Hajimemishite” opened set two before the band dove into an unfinished “JaJunk.” Beginning the second set with those tracks gave fans the impression they were in for quite the ride. This assumption was correct as the band teased the Top Gun theme during “JaJunk” and busted out an encore track which hadn’t been performed in over 100 shows.
The band finished the set with the finishing segments of “In The Kitchen” and “JaJunk.” The last song fans would hear before being greeted by the brisk mountain air was Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” which the band hadn’t played in 110 shows. The song can be a complicated one given Rush’s mastery of their instruments, but the band flew through it effortlessly, performing the cover masterfully, playing every note with passion and precision.
After two monumental nights at the ExploreAsheville.com Arena, fans were intensely curious what Umphrey’s McGee had in store for their final night at the intimate Orange Peel. The phrase “never miss a Sunday show” is well known in the jam scene, manifested in fans happily waiting at the doors over two hours before they opened the sold-out show.
The sextet played four of their newer originals during their Orange Peel show, opening up the first set with “North Route” and performing “Beaker” for the third time in Umphrey’s history. “Cut Off” and “Attachments” made appearances later in the evening. The night truly began as they shifted into their next song, “The Linear,” which had most of the crowd singing along as they jubilantly danced around the venue. Next, a rarity from Jake Cinninger’s time before joining the band, “Ride On Pony”, was brought out to much acclaim after a 636 show absence. Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days” ended the first set, which hadn’t been performed in 72 shows.
Umphrey’s final set was highlighted by lyrical fan favorites “No Diablo,” “Booth Love” and Snoop Dogg’s “Ain’t No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None),” which hadn’t been played in 169 shows. An unfinished 12-minute “Mantis” from the first set was completed after a tremendous “The Triple Wide.” Known for its infectious intro, “The Triple Wide” sandwiched in between “No Diablo” and “Mantis,” gave fans a break from singing along and allowed the dance floor to truly open up. As The Orange Peel’s floor began to bounce and pulse along with the crowd, the band all shared a smile, relishing in the uproar; before diving into an ambient segment. Umphrey’s playfully closed out the weekend with an encore of “Pay the Snucka.”
As the weekend of immense prog-rock concluded, the sheer diversity of these events came to fruition. Combining genres and communities, Umphrey’s McGee and Greensky Bluegrass brought together thousands of fans, from the well-initiated, to blown-away rookies, to one 12-year-old superfan we met whose 7th UM show was Friday at the ExploreAsheville.com Arena. Diving into their vast catalogue, the band brought out rare songs as well as performed their classics and brand new tracks. Combining precise musicianship with passionate showmanship, Umphrey’s McGee proved themselves worthy of their fans ravenous devotion.
Greensky Bluegrass | ExploreAsheville.com Arena | Asheville, NC | 2/17/17
Windshield, Living Over > Jam > Living Over, Letter to Seymour, In Control*, Can’t Stop Now^, Wings for Wheels, Miss September, Worried About The Weather > Jam > Atlantic City
* = w/ Joel Cummins
^ = “Shout” tease
Umphrey’s McGee | ExploreAsheville.com Arena | Asheville, NC | 2/17/17
Set 1: Bathing Digits > Rocker Part 2, Nothing Too Fancy > Spires > Upward, Atmosfarag > Der Bluten Kat
Set 2: 40’s Theme, Resolution -> Phil’s Farm, Black Sabbath > War Pigs, 2×2 > Nothing Too Fancy
Encore: Bad Friday
 with Stranglehold (Ted Nugent) teases
 with Anders Beck on dobro and Paul Hoffman on vocals
 with Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ (Michael Jackson) jam
Greensky Bluegrass | Exploreasheville.com Arena | Asheville, NC | 2/18/2017
Past My Prime, Run Or Die, Room Without A Roof, Jaywalking, Light Up or Leave Me Alone, I’d Probably Kill You, Demons, Forget Everything, Kerosene
Umphrey’s McGee | Exploreasheville.com Arena | Asheville, NC | 2/18/2017
Set 1: Gurgle, Higgins, Make it Right, In The Kitchen > White Man’s Moccasins, Puppet String, Can’t You See
Set 2: Mulche’s Odyssey, Hajimemishite, JaJunk > Miami Virtue > Remind Me, Professor Wormbog, Much Obliged > In The Kitchen > JaJunk
Encore: Tom Sawyer
: with Anders Beck and Paul Hoffman
Umphrey’s McGee | The Orange Peel | Asheville, NC | 2/19/17
Set 1: North Route > The Linear, Go to Hell, Cut Off > Example 1, Ride On Pony, Night Nurse, Preamble > Mantis -> Dancing Days
Set 2: Attachments, Utopian Fir > Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None) > Utopian Fir, No Diablo, The Triple Wide -> Mantis, Breaker, Booth Love
Encore: Pay the Snucka
 with Tom Sawyer (Rush) tease
Written by Tom Cunningham
Photographed by Anna Norwood