Umphrey’s McGee 2022: We’re Back(drop)!

Ben Factor, Contributing Writer and Lighting Director for Umphrey’s McGee

Umphrey’s McGee tour is back after a scary end to 2021, which saw the Omicron wave cancel our New Year’s Eve and New York City run of shows.

The New Year’s Eve cancellation was a particularly big bummer since those shows are one of our marquee events each year and the budget for lighting is double that of a standard tour. In fact, the NYE show is a chance to introduce the winter tour design concept but on a much larger scale. I spent a lot of time preparing, workshopping, and programming the NYE design, so canceling really hurt.

Despite this, I am enjoying the opportunity to introduce these new ideas on tour.

My intention for this design was to continue growing through experimentation. So, I posed myself this question: ‘Is there a choice I can make that will be significantly different from both my past works as well as my contemporaries?’ I looked toward indie-rock - a genre of music that I love and that is different from jam bands for some inspiration.

One indie-rock production designer who blows my mind is Michael Brown. He works with bands like Bon Iver, Death Cab For Cutie, and the National, to name a few. Recently, Bon Iver did a run of shows celebrating the 10th anniversary of their self-titled record. Brown’s utilization of scenic drapery at those shows served as a huge spark of inspiration for this Umphrey’s tour design. It looked so spooky, ethereal, and cohesive.

Through slightly aimless and general internet dives, like a search for “stage lighting” on Pinterest (shoutout to Rebecca for the suggestion), I came across the company SewWhatRentWhat (SWRW), which fabricates custom materials and backdrops specifically for stage productions. They were immediately responsive and supplied the exact material I had in mind. We now travel with five 10’x23’ pieces of aluminum mesh material for backdrops, all thanks to SWRW.

Once I committed to incorporating this material, the next step was designing the lighting around it. Next, I had to figure out what types of lights and their placements on stage to ensure the backdrop, for lack of a better word, shines.

The first element of the previous designs that had to be updated was the ground package of lighting, which sits behind the band. This consists of lights on cases or truss behind the band. It has become a staple of jam band shows over the past decade, thanks to my predecessor, Jefferson Waful. Nearly every jam band features some variation of this approach. Beams shooting up from behind the artist is an iconic look. However, the backdrop and ground package together would become too busy and get in the way of each other. If I were to prioritize beam-focused designing, having the backdrop would not be worth it. The solution was to move the ground lights to the edge of the stage in a vertical ladder formation. A decision that put me well outside of my comfort zone. I don’t have traditional training in lighting. I am primarily self-taught through studying shows that I love. I could imagine more experienced designers rolling their eyes at this but removing a horizontal ground package felt like blasphemy at the time.

Sticking to the prioritization of the backdrop, I kept the rest of the lighting package as simple as possible, using only a few spots, beams, side light, front light, and strobes.

Here are some reflections on this design after six weeks of touring.

  • First, the stage looks cleaner, especially from the balcony.
  • Close-up photographs of the band have extra texture and depth.
  • The rig is flexible. It can go from dark and moody with just side-lighting and the backdrop to bright and high energy with the addition of all the beams.
  • The backdrop takes the show to a specific yet abstract place. I’ve heard people say it looks like the band is performing in a “pretty cloud,” in front of a “spooky wall,” and on a “different planet.”
  • My fear of removing the traditional ground package has been silenced! In fact, I like it better. I find it easier to focus on the band members. Additionally, the show does not suffer from a lack of movement or beamage. The songs “Wappy Sprayberry,” “Triple Wide,” “Nothing Too Fancy,” and “Cemetery Walk II” all have the same rainbow chaos that I, and fans, have come to expect and love over the years.

Umphrey McGee - House of Blues Boston

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I’ll end with a bit of a cliffhanger. An unexpected opportunity the backdrop brings is the potential for video projections. Since backdrops take light so well, pointing a projector at it creates a very cool look. During our shows at the Fillmore in Detroit, I got the chance to try this out by using the in-house projector. It was AWESOME. When our NYE and NYC Shows were canceled, I spent a lot of my time learning the TouchDesigner and Resolume program, with the long-term goal of developing a system that connects lighting, video content, and generative visuals altogether. I am looking forward to using this new backdrop as a canvas for future endeavors!

Ben Factor is the lighting director for Umphrey’s McGee. He explores the ever-changing relationship between technology and music through his work. While operating the show, Ben leans on his background as a musician to help ensure the lighting is as tasteful and dynamic as the music on stage. He is based in NYC.

About Umphrey’s McGee
The music of Umphrey’s McGee unfolds like an unpredictable conversation between longtime friends. Its six participants—Brendan Bayliss [guitar, vocals], Jake Cinninger (guitar, vocals), Joel Cummins (keyboards, piano, vocals), Andy Farag (percussion), Kris Myers (drums, vocals), and Ryan Stasik (bass)—know just how to communicate with each other on stage and in the studio. A call of progressive guitar wizardry might elicit a response of soft acoustic balladry, or a funk groove could be answered by explosive percussion. At any moment, heavy guitars can give way to heavier blues as the boys uncover the elusive nexus between jaw-dropping instrumental virtuosity and airtight songcraft.

Umphrey’s McGee is a touring powerhouse, performing 85+ shows per year, headlining annual shows across the US, including Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, and the Beacon Theatre in New York. Umphrey’s is a constant US festival staple, with performances at major events including Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, Rothbury, and Bonnaroo, as well as international festivals Fuji Rock Festival (Japan) and Byron Bay Blues Festival (Australia). The band hosts their own festival in Illinois, Summer Camp Music Festival, where they perform three nights and have hosted the likes of Primus, Jane’s Addiction, Thievery Corporation, and Willie Nelson, to name a few. Umphrey’s McGee has also hosted and headlined Jam in the Dam (2005, 2006, 2008, and 2010), a three-night mini-festival at the Melkweg in Amsterdam.

Cover Photo by Tara Gracer