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Umphrey's McGee: You Walked Up Shaking in Your Boots But You Stood Tall and Left a Raging Bull
by George Graham
(Nothing Fancy Music, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/11/2021)
The jam band scene has been a boon for some interesting music, from electrified bluegrass, to progressive rock to electric blues and soul -- providing an audience for some music that would not readily fit into the commercial pop world. And one of the most interesting and versatile groups to find an audience in the jam band universe is Umphrey’s McGee, who have just released a new 13th studio album with a long complicated title which we’ll talk about in a moment. It’s a band who move between progressive rock, with an almost heavy metal approach at times, with interesting compositions and arrangements, and semi-acoustic moments.
Umphrey’s McGee formed on the campus of Notre Dame University in 1997 and are currently a sextet. They released their debut album in 1998, whimsically titled Greatest Hits Vol. III. They became a busy touring band, playing some 150 shows a year in the early 2000s, and being a regular on the jam band festival circuit. Along the way, in addition to their studio recordings, they released a series of live albums, and their live performances have become widely circulated on-line.
Over the years, Umphrey’s McGee has had a kind of special relationship with their audience, doing some concerts with sets determined by audience votes, and have released some albums that seem to be intended for existing fans, such as one in which they re-recorded some of their material at the famous Abbey Road studio in London, and one of mashups with other artists such as they have done live.
Umphrey’s McGee is known for their tongue-in-cheek album titles, such as Songs for Older Women, Local Band Does OK, and Death by Stereo, but their publicity describes the title of their new release as “perhaps their most absurd.” It’s called You Walked Up Shaking in Your Boots But You Stood Tall and Left a Raging Bull. And it could be considered another album aimed particularly at their fans. It’s a series of instrumental pieces that have been used as the band begins a concert. The group often comes on stage with an instrumental track playing on the PA system, and the members frequently jump in and play along with the tracks. So the new album is based on those pieces, re-done in a sort of studio setting, with the band taking those background pieces into full-out tunes. I say “sort-of” a studio setting, since the album was also made while they were off the road and quarantined because of the pandemic, and the members recorded their individual parts in their respective homes to be combined into the virtual performances.
The title, by the way, comes from an experience guitarist Jake Cininger had, being invited to take the stage and play with Los Lobos, the venerable roots rock band whom Cininger holds in awe. Cininger admitted some trepidation and nervousness sitting in with a group that even Eric Clapton finds formidable. Cininger found his groove with Los Lobos that night, and the album’s title is a paraphrase of what Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos said to Cininger, who had been showing his nervousness before gaining his musical footing. Hence “You Walked up Shaking in Your Boots but You Stood Tall and Left as a Raging Bull.”
Because of the nature of the pieces, intended for introductory use, the tracks are not very long and don’t get particularly complex musically. But the group creates some energetic music that can have appeal beyond Umphrey’s immediate fan base.
Opening is a piece called Catshot. Like many of the twelve tracks on the album, the piece begins softly and builds to a crescendo. <<>>
A track called There’s No Crying in Mexico is based on a sequenced rhythmic line <<>> then shifts into full-out electric mode. <<>>
Depth Charge builds on a kind of sinister-sounding riff, and can evoke mental pictures of perhaps a spy movie. <<>>
One of the longer tracks, meaning one of only two on the album clocking in at more than 4 minutes, is Tango Mike. The piece has a chance to develop well in dynamics, with a laid-back opening section <<>> building to some cranked up guitar shredding. <<>>
It’s also amps on full for the well-named track Le Blitz. <<>>
Another piece on the laid-back side is Le Sac in which Joel Cummings’ piano is more prominent. <<>>
The album ends with its lengthiest and most musically substantial track, October Rain, which is more in keeping with the band’s progressive-rock tendencies, with its more complex arrangement and seven beat meter. <<>>
Though Umphrey’s McGee’s new album, called You Walked Up Shaking in Your Boots But You Stood Tall and Left a Raging Bull, seems primarily aimed at the band’s many live fans, with fleshed out instrumental versions of the introductory music they use at concerts, it’s an album that can stand on its own. Perhaps created out of restlessness by this very live-oriented band during the pandemic shut-down with the group members recording their parts at home, the album does make for satisfying listening, and it highlights Umphrey’s strong instrumental prowess.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus for generally clean sound, especially with the need to combine the individually home-recorded parts. But as is so often the case, volume compression makes the music loud all the time, undermining the dynamics of the band’s performances.
Twenty-four years on, Umphrey’s McGee remains active, planning a regular studio album with vocals for 2022. But this musical side-trip shows yet another facet of this creative sextet.
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