Meeting a Master
Have you ever met any of your personal heroes?
Getting to meet and even hang out with someone who has been such a positive and impactful figure on your life is an incredibly fulfilling experience. It’s like having spiritual gasoline doused on your inner fire. Fortunately I’ve been blessed to have such an experience.
And it was mainly thanks to my brother’s stick shift Volkswagon.
In 2012, one of my favorite bands (tied for 1st favorite with Zeppelin) called Umphrey’s McGee announced their inaugural “sUMmer school” event in Big Indian, New York. I was basically drooling at the keyboard as I read about what would go down: group “classes” on all things Umphrey’s, song-writing sessions, meet-and-greet with the band, Q&As, jam cabins, hiking accessibility in the Catskill Mountain Range, full-course meals 3 times a day, and of course a roaring rock show every single night of this 4 day, 4 night event. Only 150 of us were allowed to attend. And I was one of them.
Many of the shows I’ve gone to and festivals I’ve attended were essentially acts of faith. Even though I didn’t have a car for the first 26 plus years of my life, I bought tickets to hundreds of shows and knew that somehow, someway I would get there. This was no different. I forked down the cash for the pass months in advance and knew that I would somehow arrive. My faith grew stronger when one of my best friends Guy “Moose” Schecter said he was going too.
I met Moose during UM’s magical 3 night run in Burlington, VT in 2009 (a weekend that featured the bassist of Phish Mike Gordon replacing birthday boy Ryan Stasik on Friday the 13th). Moose and I kept running into each other at UM shows in New England and after years of consistently seeing each other, we finally got to hang out and jam. Moose is one of the wisest and funnest people I know and we really clicked our first time really hanging together. As soon as he committed to going to sUMmer school, we agreed to camp together.
As such, I agreed to pick up his camping gear, guitars, and other essentials at his house in Massachusetts while I was on my way down from New Hampshire. The night before I stood on the porch outside, silently ecstatic. Rental car booked, my gear packed up, I felt super stoked for what was in store. While getting fresh air that night, I remember looking at my brother’s car thinking “I wish I knew how to drive stick better.” I had only driven a manual transmission once before during that very summer on a relatively short romp around the neighborhood with my dad supervising. Regardless, at least I had a rental car to get to New York.
I arrived at the airport where I scheduled to pick it up. The guy behind the counter shook his head. “We can’t allow you to drive one of these, you’re under 25.” What. Fuck. Alright. Let’s try another. My Dad and I went to and were denied at two more places before we knew that renting a car was not going to work. I lost it and started crying. It seemed like the biggest, brightest, and boldest dream circumstances that could have happened in my life up to that point just went up in smoke. On top of that I would be leaving my camping buddy hanging with no tent, no clothes, and no instruments to play for over half a week. I. HAD. TO. BE. THERE.
I looked at my dad. “Let me drive Erik’s car.” He was incredibly hesitant at first but eventually he said if I could handle it on the highway I could take it.
“Dear God whoever, whatever, and wherever you are, please let me handle this car well and please keep me and other drivers safe while I am driving on the road.” Though there were some hiccups during that “test drive,” I “passed.” My father and I were still nervous but this was one of those times I knew I had to act in spite of fear.
I drove that machine down hundreds of miles of highway and got Moose’s gear along the way seamlessly. It was a gorgeous sunny drive filled with high hopes, especially when blasting Boston’s song “Don’t Look Back” when it came on the radio. When getting into the woods of Northern New York, the radio cut out. Although it wasn’t working at the start of the adventure, the car’s CD player started functioning to continue to add to the soundtrack to this adventure. While pulling onto the dirt road that the directions suggested, I started to question if I was on the right road as it just went on and on. Again nervous, again acting despite it, I kept going.
Faith rewarded. The fresh air of the mountains never felt or smelt so good.
Seeing the “Full Moon Resort” sign was one of the greatest sights I’ve ever witnessed. I skipped ahead on the CD to one of my favorite Jeff Beck tunes “Another Place.” It’s this incredibly beautiful instrumental played only with an electric guitar and the gorgeousness of the piece complemented the beauty of the Catskill Mountain Range I finally found myself in. I parked and booked it to the main cabin where the full band Q&A was going on. I stood by the doorway overlooking the packed house. Though I missed getting to shake hands with the band, at that point I didn’t care. I was there! I MADE IT! So was Moose. I saw him from across the room and we smiled to each other as we waited to greet one another. The Q&A wrapped up and the band walked right by me. Still too starstruck to say anything, I respectfully let them go by and prayed I would get another chance to meet them. I especially wanted to meet and thank the man who I believe to be one of the greatest guitar players and overall musicians to ever make music, Jake Cinninger.
Moose and I finally met up and I told him the story. “That’s crazy! Let’s have a beer!” We did and had fun catching up before showtime. It was such a fun show and intimate show without a setlist to start the first night off right. The rest of the night, Moose and I jammed until we jammed ourselves to sleep. On the schedule for the very next morning was a 10 am class called “Improv 101.” Getting advice on how to approach making music entirely in the moment by some of the people who are the best at doing just that was a treat to say lightly. The session closed with an important announcement. “For anyone looking to sign up for a lesson with the guys in the band, more spots just opened up. Check the white board by the main office and see if you can snag a spot.” As soon as that last word was spoken I ran. I probably looked a little looney. When I got to the office I stopped dead in my tracks. There on the whiteboard written in blue marker was:
“7pm with Jake-Mitch Melodia.”
The inner wolf let out with a huge howl. They gave me a spot! And it happened mainly because of Moose. A couple of weeks or so before the event, he posted on Facebook “the greatest email I’ve ever gotten” confirming his lesson with Jake. I didn’t even know that was an option! I immediately emailed UM’s crew. They regretted to inform me that all slots were taken up at the time but more might open up in the future. Did they ever! Blissing out, I walked by to our campsite on Cloud 9. And who do I find along the way sitting in the field? The fire. The brimstone. The motocross. Jacob. Allen. Cinninger.
I didn’t know what to say at first so I just let out a “Jake!” He turned to see who it was and I introduced myself. We shook hands and I “How are you?” He said “Really good, just admiring the colors.” Upstate New York is really beautiful. I told him about what I just found out about and told him how stoked I was. He was pumped for me. Even though it was only probably 10 minutes in length, we launched into the greatest conversation I’d ever had about music up to that point in my life. In wrapping up, he told me to go back and write out what I’d like to go over in the lesson so we could have a good game plan for it.
That night at dinner, I sat with a table of fellow Umphreaks and told them the glorious news. Everyone was so happy for me, including me. It was one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve ever had. As 7 o’clock rolled around, I saw Jake get up and make his way towards the lesson spot. Instant butterflies. It was time.
I got to greet a personal guitar hero for a second time that day. I pulled out the journal and filled to where I wrote things I wanted to go over in the lesson. We dove right in. Finger-picking, finger-tapping, hybrid-picking, different patterns of playing chords, different chord shapes, guitarists to check out, arpeggios, tasteful shredding, we got to go over it all. I got years worth of material to practice in under an hour. Additionally I got to enjoy a beer with him. I brought a couple for us but initially I was so excited that was just got going. After a while he said “It looks like someone left a couple beers here.” I almost forgot about them and said “Oh yeah! I brought them for us.” He said, “Now you’re speaking my language” and then I got to shoot the shit with “Jaco.” It was great getting to talk about how great Zeppelin was. The joyful hour started to come to a close, and there was one thing left on the list for the lesson: “JAM.”
And so he began. It was this cool two chord pattern (Em7, F#m7) that he looped at first. It reminded me of another tune. “What if you move that shape up here and change it up a bit?” I suggested. “Woah, what is that chord?” Mentally thinking Did Jake just ask me about a chord shape? I showed him. Using that same shape at the 12th and 10th frets on the A string, boom, we had a song to jam on.
It gives me goosebumps to write about and think about. Did that actually happen? It sure did! I’ve gotten to be a part of a lot of tasty jams in my life. That one will always remain one of my favorites. Before he left to get ready for the show, he agree to sign my lesson pad and in-scripted/instructed “Play Hard.” People passing by our open-aired lesson remarked about how amazing it was to see and hear. One of the people passing by included a member of UM’s crew named “Louie.” I thanked them both then they drove away in their golf cart to meet up with the band before that night’s show. I was basically speechless. The hour leading up to the show was a euphoric daze. I met up with Moose and told him about the greatest guitar lesson I’d ever been given. I am forever grateful to be able to have Moose as a friend. For helping set me up for a lesson with a guitar God, for being one of my favorite people to jam with, and for all around just being the man, I’ll always love that Guy.
Moose and I took our usual spots right up near the stage itself. The musical fireworks were in full effect that evening (8/8/2012). One of the greatest feelings known to man takes place during a live show. When you are performing and you see, hear, and feel the audience really loving it, you get that much more into it yourself. When you’re that much more into it, the audience is too. That virtuous cycle can deliver one of the best natural highs we humans can experience. On the audience side of that two-way street, it’s still one of the funnest events to be a part of. Every person in attendance is somehow adding to the show that is being performed live in front of and for you. In regards to bands like Umphrey’s that improvise, the music being made in the moment is being drawn from and created in large part by the atmosphere of the audience. As a fan, when you get to witness and contribute to something that is being created right before you that’s never been created before, it’s a feeling tough to describe with words. That night, as with every UM show, the improv was really strong. Especially nearing the very end of that show.
Jake said something to me at the end of the lesson that at the time, I thought nothing of. As he made his way towards his golf cart to meet up with the band, I thanked him again for the lesson and for being able to jam on that song. He said you’re welcome and added “Don’t be surprised if that shows up tonight.” Towards the very last minutes of that night’s show, the whole band stops and Jake just busted into the song were jamming. Instantly I almost started crying. If I completely let go of trying to control my emotions in public at that moment, I would have been weeping openly.
Jake launched into what was for a long while the #1 song for Umphrey’s McGee on Spotify with millions of plays: their version of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” by Radiohead.
When the band started to play around it I was freaking out. I started telling everyone around me that Jake and I played this earlier in our lesson. Looks of shock and sheer happiness filled the faces of everyone who heard. Jake motioned to Kris their drummer to start singing and he began to.
“In the deepest ocean…”
There is a full body buzz that comes over me whenever I think about that moment, and whenever I hear or play that song. I don’t know if it was part of their setlist but it seemed like the band was just making it up on the spot. Being some of the best musicians on Earth, they rode it out and created a sublime soundscape for minutes on the song’s initial progression. Thus marked one of the biggest peaks of my existence.
As the euphoric bliss of that pattern slowed and became quieter, they slammed back into the end of their original “Der Bluten Kat” (named that way because of the drum fill in the intro. Yet another thing I learned about them that weekend). With all this in mind, “Der Bluten Kat” may be my favorite drum fill out there. After the show came to a close and he stepped off stage, I gave a hugely heartfelt thank you to Jake. I’m sure he got to see and hear how much it meant to me as it was happening, but it’s always nice to share that gratitude verbally too. As the crowd cleared out, Louie beelined it over to me. “Dude!” We both were beyond psyched at what just went down. Little did I know, Louie had been to hundreds of UM shows before he started working with them. As a true fan of the band, he knows how meaningful those moments were.
I took that high to the jam rooms and literally dropped jaws that night. It was the greatest playing I’d ever done because that was the greatest I’d ever felt up to that moment in time. The euphoria lasted all night, all week for that matter, and still lingers on today. The next day I laid in one of the many hammocks set up around the site by a creek and listened to UM do their thing during a day class. As I calmly rocked back and forth, I wrote a thank you note to Jake briefly describing what it took to even get to sUMmer school. After one of the other classes in the big barn, I again I thanked him for creating one of the best memories of my life and gave the paper to him. I poured my heart into that note and apparently the band took it to heart too.
Months later while studying abroad in India, Umphrey’s made their official full live debut of the song at arguably the Crown Jewel of the Earth: Red Rocks Amphitheater (9/14/12 [the same show featuring a 20 minute “All In Tim”e Opener. What.). Moose let me know as he was at that show. I wanted to believe him so bad and sure enough when I got to the band’s website and went straight to the setlist section, there it was: “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” (debut, Radiohead).