Umphrey's McGee & Billy Strings in Asheville

A two night rager to celebrate Valentines Day and the love of incredible music.

If you dig the horns with soulful vocals and deep funk and rock that keeps your toes tapping, then the Friday opener, Empire Strikes Brass, is for you.  Based in Asheville, ESB just released their second studio album, "Brassterpiece Theatre" and man it lives up to it's name with a ton of groove from a fantastic rhythm section and most highlighted by a powerful horn section that creates tons of depth within the music. They started the weekend off right playing to a crowd that was ready to get their feet moving. The soul that Grammy Award winning Debrissa McKinney (Agent 23 Skidoo) incorporates into this music electrifies the stage, while keyboardist and producer Lenny Pettinelli lays down thick layers of whirling Hammond and guitarist Kelly Hannah noodles through each tune with intricate playing.  Their set was masterful and the perfect way to set the stage for a weekend of music and love! 

Billy Strings brings a fresh new style of playing to the table, fast and intricate, jammy when necessary, but always bluegrass in its form.  But the thing that continues to blow me away, is when he begins to sing. The vocals match that of a 60 year old well seasoned singer, strong and raspy, who has been on tour for 20 years.  But he is only 27 years young.  The soul he sings with tells a story like you want EVERY story to be told.  Opening with a crowd sing along favorite "Hollow Heart", from their new album "Home", the crowd began to shift gears fast.  The harmonies in this song are fantastic and it is important to note that each of these musicians are a master at their instrument and the way they craft songs, apparent in the first quick mandolin solo from Jarrod Walker, teasing and picking fast, but letting up quickly to let Billy sing. Up next was the instrumental song Pyramid Country off their first effort, Turmoil and Tinfoil, which starts dark and mysterious, psychedelic in nature, but then Billy comes out of nowhere with the smooth bluegrass licks. Lots of picking in this one. Trading off with both Billy Failing, a banjo god and Jarrod keeping it tight with smooth mando playing. Ripping into How Mountain Girls Can Love, a nod to The Stanley Brothers, "Get down boys, go back home, back to the girl you love", a theme of love was evident and quickly building.  This song turned to a spacey jam, ending with Billy on fire, twirling his long gorgeous locks like a 1980's hair band guitar player, again trading licks with Billy on banjo.  All the while, Royal Masat was laying down the groove on upright bass, leading the way for each player to find new passages through each verse.  A barn burner if you will!  Next up was the ballad "While I'm Waiting Here" also from their freshman effort Turmoil and Tinfoil.  This is a song about enduring a love relationship from behind bars, in agony thinking about being with that person though sentenced to 30 years and wondering if they'll be there for you when you get out, singing the lyric "Seems like the last time, feels like the first, thought I've had bad days, this has to be my worst.  I'm left thinking about you dear, while I'm waiting here."  The crowd singing loud, following the message and feeling the pain, but believing every single word and enjoying the agonizing story of love and separation.  The band then ripped into a raucous cover of Train, Train by Blackfoot, taking it to a whole different level, while keeping in the theme, "well the woman I'm in love with, Lord, she's Memphis bound."  The crowd showed approval with this cover, singing so loud.  Reverb galore in this one and reaching a scorching jam by the end.  A quick break for Billy to address the crowd..."Happy Valentine's Day!"  Then smoothly flowing into another cover, this time tipping the hat to Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, a Valentine favorite, They Love Each Other."  "They love each other.  Lord you can see that it's true." Staying on the path and igniting the crowd to continue to sing with approval.  Up next was Love Me, Darling, Just Tonight, made famous by the late Ralph Stanley.  Traditional bluegrass at it's finest.  The band stayed on track, filling the room with love.  "Love me darling just tonight, take your arms, hold me tight." Taking a breath, Billy says "Thank you folks!" Then the band leaned into another love ballad from their latest album, "Home", signing "Love Like Me."  The song has fantastic lyrics about supporting a loved one.  "You could climb the highest mountain.  You could swim the deepest sea.  You could walk that lonesome valley and never find a love like me."  The crowd moved slowly letting Billy sing the song and tell the story.  Up next was "Must Be Seven", which to me has such a Greensky Bluegrass feel to it and I truly believe we will see the two bands do this one together one day.  Also from "Home", this song is about a couple that had obvious issues throughout their relationship, but mustered the courage to grow through it and get out of the town that had so many bad memories for them.  "Just like the shards of shattered mirrors, broken pieces scattered over the burial grounds, and it must have been seven years now, since they got out of that town." Next the band covers "She Makes My Heart", a song from the late Doc Watson.  Another song about love, the crowd sings "Look away over yonder, can't you see the eagle rise, Lord I love my sweet baby like that bird that loves the sky!"  This song is slow and pure gravy for your biscuits.  Billy's sweet singing, guided by a beautiful solo from Jarrod on the mandolin, finishes softly and with poise.  Feeling the set was about to come to an end, the band fired into "Away from the Mire", also from the new album "Home."  This song, in my humbled opinion, is one of the best on their sophomore effort.  The lyrics seem to be those that many can relate to.  Fear and pain, trying to heal from death, these seem to be common topics throughout the song.  When the set was over and the boys took a bow, they left it all out on the stage with a story.  One that some would say was dark and lonely.  Others will find the soft points and tell it differently, emphasizing all the love connotations.  But in the end, we are left with one thing.  A perfect set filled with emotion ranging from sorrow and angst, to desire and spite but highlighted by one word.  Love.  Watch a video of this set!

Lights dim.  It's time for Umphrey's McGee!  The crowd erupts into a roar.  The band takes the stage and the rumbles of Goonville begin to resonate throughout the arena.  This song is a perfect lead in to the evening.  A dark thunderous instrumental with hard rocking strums, mimicking a metal flavor with short strums of thunderous guitar. The song meanders it's way quickly, charging with might right into "Crucial Taunt." You could tell the band was ready to rock!  For me, this is their underrated anthem rock song and it shook the rafters inside Harrah's Cherokee Center.  Such prolific writing and vocals that are fun to sing loud.  "The simple fact it still remains, there's no reason to complain, it's only change surrounding you.  And if the cost keeps growing higher then there won't be much more I could try to settle.  And as you walk in line every time you try to fall behind and I can only carry you so far.  And as you try to talk your way around the facts by now I'm sure you found denial isn't who you are!" Masterful lyrics!  Chris Myers and Andy Farag setting the beat with Stasik grooving the bass line along, while Jake catches instant fire with intricate soloing.  Love the giving and taking within this tune.  Drums, guitar, drums, guitar, back and forth.  The song comes to a thunderous build and at the end, a pause...and a statement from Brendan.  "Happy Valentine's Day Asheville, North Carolina.  Will you be our Valentine?" The crowd responds with approval and the band starts their own love set with "Mad Love", Jake setting the pace.  Pretty straight forward, meandering along and right into "Booth Love."  Stasik leading the groove.  This remains one of my favorite tunes.  It's light and airy, but groovy and one I can stretch my legs out to. Eventually the song winds right into "Andy's Last Beer."  The band rocking together with intent.  Love how this song goes from a hard rocker with a steady beat, to light and "Phishy" at times.  Then Brendan sings "gimme a reason, what's in your brain?"  Fans bobbing their heads with approval, staying with the groove.  The way Jake and Brendan layer harmonics on top of each other is beautiful and adds such layers to the jams in their music. The lights turn to red now, a Valentine's nod.  The stage is dark and red.  The band breaks into "Hurt Bird Bath."  This is a very technical filled JAM song.  In the middle of the song, when the guitars begin to strum short metal chops, the crowd began to "wooo" with approval. Then the song goes into it's Floyd like spacey feel, crafting a new feeling with some psychedelic tinges.  The lights are beautiful and expanding into purples, blues and whites.  The jam becomes more direct with a purpose. The jam gets serious and angry.  Red lights flooding, Jake tapping his fret board, echoes of distortion and reverb, but then turning to a reggae flare, with Joel tinkling the keys to add flavor.  As the song comes to an abrupt finish, the crowd responds loudly with cheers.  Brendan says "Now were cooking with gas!" Without a second to spare, Jake begins a bluesy riff with harmonics and "In the Kitchen" begins.  I have to say, this is one of my all time favs.  The temperature seemed to increase twenty degrees and just in time, the set came to a close.

Lights down.  Let's go!  The boys take the stage and quickly begin to explore, noodling into "Smell the Mitten." This one loaded with strong echoing guitar riffs, driving drums and percussion and thumping bass lines.  The lights were lifting from the ground up to the rafters and the jam seemed to follow down and up.  There was also a Jetson's Theme tease in this.  At one point, the song took on a disco like feel and Jake was playing with fingers on the neck, fast and intricate.  Then the song took shape and finished in the jammy fashion it does, getting faster at the end.  When the song was over, Brendan said, "We love you this much", stretching his arms out as far as he could.  At that same moment, someone threw something on stage and he quickly said, "You can throw weed too!"  Myers counted off with a stick count and the band raged into "All in Time!"  I have been seeing this band for many years and this song continues to land at the top for me.  This song makes me dance hard and I was not alone.  Chins bouncing up and down in approval, loud singing.  This is the song for the fans. This song reached HYPE level.  The jams were strong and well placed between minutes of reverb and chaos.  But eventually it wound up sliding into the Pink Floyd like song "The Weight Around."  This is a pretty fantastic song.  There are rumors that Bayliss wrote this song about a bitter divorce he went through, as a product of traveling and never being home.  It's been said that he has a very difficult time performing it live on stage.  Picking Valentine's Day to do it, seems bittersweet, but also probably therapeutic in a way.  As the song raged through a very heavy metal ballad of whiny guitar soloing and detailed melodies, it reached the end and finished beautifully to an eerie silence.  Then Brendan said, "Ladies and it ok if Billy Strings comes up here and helps us out a bit?"  First song, "Great American."  This was not a song I would have bet anything on that he would perform with the band.  But Billy fell right into it taking solos right out of the gate and making them sound as if he was part of the musical writing of the song.  It was beautiful and magic.  What makes him stand apart from most is his uncanny way of being able to shred bluegrass riffs and then turn right around and jam with the best of them.  And jam he did!  It makes me wonder if he spends time sitting around on his limited time off from tour, mapping out what songs he wants to perform and with who?  I mean, this is Umphrey's McGee.  Songs are well constructed and technical with all sorts of changes in time and theory.  He stood right between Jake and Brendan bending notes and playing right along without skipping a beat.  It was amazing!  At the end of the song Brendan asked if it was ok if played one more and the crowd responded with cheers.  Then Brendan said, "Can you say it like you mean it?"  And the crowd erupted!  There had to be a sick cover coming.  You could just feel it in the air.  Brendan said very emphatically "I was introduced to Billy by my friend Jeff Austin...this one is for him!"  Then they broke right into another UM original, "Phil's Farm."  If you know this one, then you know where it goes...straight into a hoe down jam that really fits Billy's style and he took it on with all he had.  At one point the sound was like whales under water, calling each other within the jam.  Then the song built into a shred of guitar madness with all 3 playing hard and at one point I witnessed Billy's face, which appeared to be like "Holy Shit", as Jake pulled out the fire solo!  Joel got involved at this point, smashing the keys and staying within the jam.  As the song came to a close, Brendan introduced Billy again and off he went, leaving the crowd with mouths open and drool on their chins.  The band continued their musical journey with "1348", which had a Roundabout (Yes) intro.  Closing the set, they waved to the crowd and disappeared off stage.  Making their way back a few minutes later for an encore of "It Doesn't Matter."  The jams were nice and heavy at times, weaving their way through and eventually finding their way back to "All in Time".  The meat of the melody was met with smiles, dancing, and kissing, as the band finished their Valentine's performance in style.  Brendan said, "We love you and will see you very soon."  Tomorrow to be exact.  It's night 2!

Let the love spill over!  Night two started with a better early crowd for Empire Strikes Brass, which was good to see.  Supporting local talent is so important and this is a band everyone can get behind.  A deep funky set tonight that set the stage perfectly.  Included Petinelli, donned in a pink tutu, singing a cover of Cheech and Chong's "Earache My Eye!" Love this band!  Go see them whenever you get the chance and pick up their new colored vinyl of Brassterpiece Theatre!  Getting some stellar reviews.

Billy Strings time.  As they entered the stage, Billy came to the mic and said "So we meet again!"  The band tore into "Slow Train" from Billy's EP.  Great pickin' and playing from everyone.  Without pause the band moved right into "I'll Remember Your Love in My Prayers", written by Will Hays.  Another great version.  Very Billy heavy picking on guitar and banjo.  After a quick breath, Billy said "Thank you Asheville.  Well we're having a blast man.  Thank you so much to Umphrey's McGee for having us.  I just got a feeling about tonight.  You know what I mean?"  Then the psychedelic, whirly, reverb heavy teases of "Turmoil and Tinfoil" could be heard and the band launched right in!  Seemed as if the theme for the evening was heartbreak at this point.  Lot's of "nauseating gloom" throughout the set so far.  This was a very uplifting, fast paced kind of gloom though.  The kind Billy Strings fans love.  This song was filled with lots of shredding from all the boys. Up next was "Cold On the Shoulder", written by Gordon Lightfoot.  A quick easy traditional bluegrass tune that kept the crowd moving.  Then Billy said "Alright."  The band treated the crowd to a nice ballad of "Watch It Fall", from the new album Home. The band tore into "Dust in a Baggie", which in my opinion is a crowd favorite for sure.  Everyone sang the lyrics so loud that you could here the echoes in the arena. The sad anti love songs continue! The band moved right into "Running" without pause, burning it down.  Great picking in this one.  Noticing the jaw line of Billy and how he seems to form words with every pick of the string, as if he is singing each note.  "Run to the river.. Run to the sea...". Great song to kick up some dust to.  Next up was "In Hiding", written by Pearl Jam.  Interesting rendition of this song.  Billy's voice actually sounds eerily like Eddie.  The song was jammed with reverb and echoes on the vocals.  Moving along the band did "Everything's the Same" from their sophomore record "Home."  Opening line had a lyric change.  "I'm going to Asheville. I'm going to Maine.  No matter where I roam, everything's the same."  The crowd erupted with approval.  Great picking from Jarrod and both Billys in this one.  Royal Masat kept this one moving along with his fast bass string plucking.  This one was short so they could move into their final get down. The show closer was what everyone was waiting for.  "Meet Me at the Creek!"  This song is an all out ripper.  The lyrics are fantastic and the picking comes hard and fast.  The crowd showed him love with all the dancing and smiling.  The song moved through technical picking and then all out chaos jamming.  Jarrod shreds on this tune with crazy psychedelic picking.  When the song came to a close and the lights dimmed, the crowd erupted with joy and cheering. Another epic Billy Strings show for the ages!

Enter UM.  Lights out and the crowd is intense tonight!  The feel in the room is very different from last night.  Sold out crowd and they came to rage.  There was an early show for the VIP ticket holders that included a 4 song set and a bust out of "Patience", which hadn't been played since October 28, 2011!  Opening the show, "October Rain."  A beautiful instrumental that built with purpose, as Jake noodled his way through it, eventually segueing into "Rocktopus."  For me, this song is just plain badass from start to finish.  The JAM in this is just so perfect for an arena setting.  Strong vocals and rich guitar solos that make you want to pump your fist in the air.  Tonights did not disappoint.  Lived up to the ROCK part for sure!  Next up was a stand alone version of "The Silent Type" which was then backed up by "Made to Measure> Eat."  So much of a Beatles feel in Made to Measure.  Love how Joel adds the tinkling of the piano keys throughout this song.  It's happy and jolly.  Eat is a song that is gaining momentum in my opinion.  It was recorded on The London Session in one day in Studio 2 at Abbey Road.  So the pairing of the two songs in this show made a little sense if you knew the background on the songs.  Up next the band dropped "Deeper" off the Death by Stereo album.  This song meandered along with beautiful flowing lights of orange and blue.  The jam built a bit before ending in "Miss Tinkle's Overature", a true crowd pleaser.  This song never disappoints fans.  It's a staple in the UM world and a fun song that moves the feet.  The band brought out the horn section of Empire Strikes Brass for the next two songs, which included a bust out of "National Loser Anthem", a mash up song of Radiohead's "National Anthem", Beck's "Loser", and Phil Collins "In the Air Tonight".  This song appeared on Zonkey, the mashup album.  Mashups are great and UM does them better than anyone.  Tonight the horns made it extra special.  Keeping the horns out, the band then played "Bad Friday" to end a raucously fun set. 

The second set started with "Dark Brush" and then moved to "Dump City".  The band then welcomed Billy Strings out again, this time for a killer version of "Voodoo Chile", which had not been played since February 21, 2014!  Billy sat comfortably on this one, shredding with Brendan and Jake.  After Billy left the stage, the band worked through a sequence of "Bridgeless> Night Nurse> Attachments", which was pretty straight forward.  Closing the set with "Pay the Snucka" and returning to "Bridgeless" again to finish it out.  The crowd was not ready to go and they let the band know with loud cheers for an encore.  Returning to the stage the band started with "Half Delayed", which the band sang beautifully.  "I've been told a thing or two. I didn't want to hear but I needed someone like you. And I really shouldn't have to explain it why this train of thoughts is dangerous."  Needing a rage ending, the band wound up back in "Pay the Snucka" and the boys left it all out on the stage at Harrah's Cherokee Center.  Thanking the crowd, the boys took a bow and left the stage, leaving us all with a feeling of wanting more.  We can only hope that next year, they return for another incredible weekend of love and jams. 

- James Mayfield

- Photos by Tim Hobert