American rock and jam band Umphrey’s McGee churns out a progressive brand of improvised rock that has made them one of the premier live acts on tour these days. Lighting designer Jefferson Waful, who replaces longtime band LD Adam Budney, started working with the band prior to the its latest release, Mantis, and subsequent tour.
Having worked with the band moe. since 2004, Waful found himself out of work when that band took an indefinite break this past fall. “Just by total coincidence, Umphrey’s McGee needed a substitute LD for a few shows, as their longtime LD was taking a tour off for personal reasons,” Waful says. “Umphrey’s and moe. have a long history of sharing the stage, so they called me.” When Budney decided to pursue other roads, Waful was brought on fulltime. “I was really enjoying the challenge of having to learn an entire catalog of new material, which was quite daunting, and the freshness of coming up with new designs,” he adds. “It felt very natural.”
Since the band had been working on Mantis for more than two years when Waful joined, he says they were so excited about the new material that they would blare it on the tour bus late at night. “It was like a scene out of Almost Famous, and I was really struck by how much passion the band and crew had for this new music. I immediately started getting visions of what the light show should look like. The record has such a large, cinematic feel to it. I kept calling it ‘epic,’ until one of the band members jokingly banned the use of the word due to its overuse. So we decided on ‘grandiose’ as an acceptable synonym.”
Waful was given relatively free reign over the lighting looks for the show. His design philosophy? “Because of the nature of the music, I was really trying to create giant arena-sized looks in the tradition of Pink Floyd or Genesis,” he says. “The title track of the album is so intricate and perfectly composed that it was the first time I’ve ever written out an entire cue list. It was quite challenging but very rewarding. We knew it was going to take something extra special to highlight these new compositions.”
Of note on the rig is the existence of Martin Professional MAC III Profile™ units—12 of them, six upstage and six on the deck behind the band—as the tour is one of the first to take them out on the road. Tasked with creating the appropriate visuals to match an epic—ahem, grandiose—album, Waful says having access to a new fixture was “serendipitous and allowed me to create brand new, cutting-edge visuals to accompany the new material. I almost always use a gobo since the lights are so bright,” he says of his designs. “With the cone gobo [in the MAC III], there is so much light coming out, I tweak the iris down a bit. I like having that flexibility. There is so much light to play with that, once you start filtering some of it out, you still have enough left to get a nice sharp beam with a lot of texture.” Waful also says he uses the half colors feature quite a bit.
Additional lighting in the rig includes six MAC 2000 Profiles™, four Martin Atomic 3000™ strobes, and eight JB Lighting Varyscan P2 250s supplemented with house conventionals. Waful says the Varyscan P2 250s “have an incredibly intense beam and very sharp gobos for their small size and very light weight. They run on 110V power, so if we’re in a small club and can’t use our distro, they are able to plug into any regular old wall outlet.” Where possible, he flies them on a downstage or upstage truss, but often he’ll put them on the deck. “We play such different venue sizes from show to show that it’s really helpful to have such a compact light that can be used anywhere,” he adds.
The MAC 2000 Profiles are in a downstage truss to wash band members. “I still love the three gobos on the color wheel, so I’ll occasionally use them for a pretty house look over the audience,” Waful says, adding that he uses the Atomic Strobes sparingly. “Umphrey’s music can be very frantic at times, but I try to only use the strobes once or twice a night. Because a lot of the show is improvisational, sometimes it’s hard to not jump to the strobes as soon as the band starts cranking, but I do my best to keep it to a minimum.” Atmospheric effects include four Reel FX DF-50 Hazers and two Barco/High End Systems F-100™ Fog units. Gear was supplied by Performance Lighting of Chicago, with Creative Stage Lighting handling shows in the Northeast.
A major element of the production design is a large backdrop of the album art made by AAA Flag and Banner and designed by Mark Blanchette, who also designed the Mantis cover art. Early in the tour, this was illuminated using the MAC IIIs. Eventually, however, Waful literally flipped it to use it as a white cyc. “The light from the MAC IIIs is so sharp and so vivid that it looks like moving video,” he says. “So we decided to turn our backdrop around, as it’s white on the back, and started projecting onto that. The white reflects the light better than the artwork and looks so vivid that it was hard to revert to the grayer backdrop.”
Waful programs and operates the show from an MA Lighting grandMA console, and he did some preprogramming for the tour with Hans Shoop, whom Waful describes as “a mentor to me who really taught me a great deal about programming the grandMA. A lot of the groundwork for my effects was laid by him, so while I’ve programmed all of the cues in our current show, a lot of my programs still reference effects that Hans built. We also bring in Hans to do programming for some of our special, bigger-budget shows.”
Crew chief Wade Ellis Wilby worked with Performance Lighting and Martin to get the rig outfitted for the tour. “He’s a big part of getting the light show up and running every day,” Waful says. “I still recall the first time Wade saw a demo of the MAC III back in December. He called me up and said, ‘This fixture will drive you nuts. You will lose sleep over it because the combinations are endless.’ And he was right. The textural glass gobos and rich, saturated color wheel options have not helped my insomnia.”
Waful adds that he tends to be consistent in how he interprets sections of music that evoke certain moods. “To me, what determines a great show is really all of the sections in between,” he says. “It’s easy to use blues and indigos during quiet, pretty sections and reds and yellows for hot, aggressive rock moments. The challenge is how to get from point A to point B. A very large percentage of the show is often improvisational, so some nights go really smoothly for me, and some nights do not, but that’s what makes it so much fun. There are moments when I might randomly decide that the whole band should be lit up in green to look like aliens, and it might be a magical moment, but other times I might guess wrong. That’s the beauty of improv.”
Umphrey’s McGee continues to tour and appear at various festival dates through the summer.