Umphrey's McGee brings hi-fidelity to Northerly Island

Umphrey’s McGee, a locally based jam band who celebrated their 15th anniversary in January at the Brooklyn Bowl wants to change the way you listen to live music. Charles Dickens might say that it’s the best of music, it’s the worst of music.

FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Chicago’s Northerly Island was the third stop of UM’s 14-date tour, on which they share headline duty with Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9). Currently out of Santa Cruz, STS9 is consistently ranked among Pollstar magazine’s list of top-grossing touring acts. But, this isn’t a concert review, so we’ll just say that it was a great show and leave it at that.

First, there’s the technology. For $40 (and a $500 deposit) you rent a Sennheiser EK G3 wireless bodypack receiver, which you clip to your belt or jam into a pocket. For your listening pleasure it’s attached to a pair of Audio Technica ATH-M50 Professional Studio Monitor headphones. Nice rig, nice sound.

The music you hear comes from the soundboard mix and is theoretically the same as the sound guy hears. Like making love wearing headphones, it’s something everyone should try at least once.

As do many technological possibilities, wireless headphones (technically, the headphones are wired, the receiver is wireless) beg the question: We can do it, but should we?

If you’re wondering, I didn’t pop for the $40, I borrowed a setup from a guy named Phil. Or Bill. Or he said he was ill and I held onto his headphones for 20 minutes when all he wanted to do was go home.

Luckily for me-not so lucky for Phil/Bill- I got to listen to UM and STS9 cover David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. The sound was awesome and as I stood there with my eyes closed, bobbing my head to the music it was easy to forget where I was. And therein lies the problem.

Heading downtown everyday, I sit on the train ensconced in the sound of my ipod, engrossed in whatever’s current on my Kindle. I’m in my own world, alone in a sea of people.

It’s the same up and down the streets of Chicago, everyone doing their own thing, listening to whatever they’re listening to, chatting on the phone, texting, surfing the web. This is the world in which we live and it can be pretty isolating.

I took an informal poll among random people I encounter over the past few days and got mixed opinions. No one I spoke to had ever tried the headphones-at-a-concert thing and only a few had ever heard of it. Most people said they’d be willing to try it, only a few thought it seemed like a good idea.

The strongest opinion came from Matthew, who was working at the Central Park Grill booth at Highland Park’s annual Port Clinton Art Fair. He said emphatically, “That’s ridiculous! Why would anyone want to kill the whole concert experience with headphones?”

I saw Journey Wednesday night at Ravinia with the band’s greatest fan (my wife). It was a perfect night and Arnel Pineda is the perfect lead singer for Journey (no disrespect, Steve, we’d still go see you anytime).  His vocals, though were sometimes lost in the music or behind the backing vocals. This often happens with live music, especially at open air venues.

Had I been listening to the show on headphones, I’m sure the lead vocals would’ve remained strong, assuming the sound guy was doing his job.

The question, though is whether or not I would have enjoyed the show as much.  I think I would’ve enjoyed the music, but felt more like I was enjoying the solitude of my backyard.  I certainly would’ve missed a couple good stories from Bob, who drove in from Rockford and told hilarious fat jokes between songs. (he was a tad on the heavy side, so it seemed OK)

With our busy lives and hectic schedules, concerts are one of the few experiences we can share with the people in our lives. Unless we hate them. In which case there’s headphones.

BONUS: There’s still a couple weekends left to Chicago’s summertime and some great out door shows. A few of the bands I saw this summer worth hunting down and finding are: Hi Infidelity, Sugar High and This Must Be The Place

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