ESPN’s Tony Reali on “Lady & the Tramping” with Umphrey’s McGee
On Sunday, February 16, Umphrey’s McGee closed out its second night at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, Maryland, with a heavy night of music that drew on Umphrey’s rockers new and old.
For any fan, seeing Umphrey’s McGee for the first time is undoubtedly a special experience, but none expect to end up on stage with the band. For Tony Reali, host of ESPN’s Around The Horn, his first show included sitting in on two-instruments for his favorite song. Here he explains his connection to the band and how the sit-in came about.
How did you get to know the Umphrey's McGee guys and how did the sit-in come about?
They're insane sports fans. Notre Dame. Chicago. Pittsburgh. I’m not sure the last time Ryan's been on stage without some sort of Steelers shout-out. The other night he had to pay up on a lost bet and wore a Ray Lewis Ravens jersey out for a song. It KILLED him. [Bassist Ryan Stasik and a fan from Baltimore bet on the results of this past season’s Ravens-Steelers game, and Stasik lived up to his end of the bargain]
We're insane music fans [at Around The Horn]. That Metal Show and VH1 Classic are on all day on. We only turn the volume down when Days of Our Lives is on because we're insane Days of Our Lives fans. Last time their tour took them through DC they stopped in for a taping of Horn. Not exactly sure how that came about, I think someone on our crew blindly reached out to them because we knew they liked sports. We got to hang in the green room a bit before the show and swapped fantasy football war stories. They’re serious about their sports; they travel with a Disc Golf starter set! If they weren't constantly on tour they could be filling in plasmas 1 to 6 on Horn. Brendan [Bayliss] would probably want to talk too much tennis.
We’re always looking for musical accompaniment to show-related pieces we do, and Umphrey’s McGee makes perfect sense because their base is so broad. Rock, funk, prog, jazz, black death, Norwegian speed, Afro-Cubano, they cover so much. They can make anything we do sound better, so we've been talking about it. They invited us to the soundcheck to kick around ideas. I walked in while they were playing “Layla.” It was like walking into a flesh-eating wall of sound. It's my favorite song all time and they knew it. It can make me cry just hearing it on the radio, so hearing it in a soundcheck was revelatory. They hadn't played it live in 100 shows and said, “We're doing it tonight and you're coming on stage with us.” My mouth said yes, my stomach said vomit.
Describe the experience of playing with them.
My pulse had to be over 200 the whole time. Between Pardon the Interruption and Horn I’ve done about 5,000 shows. Not one – not the first one, not the four I’ve had food poisoning for – made me feel like this. 2,000 people PAID MONEY and I was about to projectile vomit all over it. When Brendan called me out I think I entered some sort of state of hyperawareness. Think “Tibetan monk, Navy Seal, Long Haul Truck Driver on 16th cup of coffee hyperawareness.” Where nerves meet excitement meet “You’re in the jungle baby, you’re gonna dieeeeeeee!”
I could see every person in the joint. The girl with the belly button in the front row, the dude in the Ryan Tannehill jersey 100 people back, the two guys on the left side giving the me the middle finger, it was awesome. They’ve since tweeted me to say they meant no offense. Good guys. In television the studio lights wipe everything out behind the cameras, so I wasn’t expecting to see people. That was real cool and must be great for the guys because they can feel the crowd.
I was going to step up to the mic and say something like, “Everybody get drunk and make mediocre decisions!” but thought I’d sound like a poser (accurate!) and chicken out. I snuggled in next to Andy [Farag]. He’s got an insane set up of percussion, blessed tools of ignorance! I plotted out my plan of attack beforehand – shaker, snare, cowbell. Once Jake [Cininnger] ripped into the opening riff I forgot it all. “Bongos?! What am I doing? The greatest song of all-time and I’m Uncle Jesse at a Beach Boys concert?!?”
I was mic’ed up and the noises coming out of my body at this point are comical. I nailed a few good chimes on time and felt solid on the shaker. Brendan is turning around to look at me every now and then and is always laughing because my face is stuck in V for Vendetta mask mode. I knew I was going to saddle up next to Joel [Cummins] for the piano exit – I’m not sure he knew that – but I wanted to make sure I didn’t screw it up too early so I waited a bit.
He’s on piano so I sit down on the organ and I’m immediately lost. My brain is melting and I can’t even differentiate between the white and black keys. I look up to get a few more middle fingers and Brendan laughing. I then scream out in a panic to Joel, “What key are we in?” He laughs. I stay in C – which is thankfully the right key – and then decide to switch over to Joel’s piano and play the octave higher. Now we’re Lady & the Tramping the piano, and it’s beginning to sound pretty good to my ears. I’m 150 percent in the moment when Brendan yells 1-2-3-4 and I realize I nearly played over the end of the song. I finish by violating the organ with about six slides too many and mistiming my last jump. Eh, whaddaya gonna do, rock & roll, baby. Best feeling you can have with your pants on.
Thankfully it was the last song of the set because I’m not sure the guys could go on because of laughter. They gave me a gift. I’m forever grateful.
Judging by the sit-in, you can obviously play some percussion and keys. Can you tell me a bit about your musical background?
I haven’t played with anybody, anywhere in probably 12 years. That’s what made this such a goof. I’ve lived in apartments since I left home for college. No drums, no piano, just rock band and Karaoke. I try to play piano whenever I'm at a friend’s house or a hotel. Can’t be more than five or six times a year. My playlist right now goes about three songs deep, which is comical because I used to play so much. I taught myself “Layla” off Youtube a couple of years ago. Playing drums during the soundcheck was probably the third time I hit it since college. Kris’ set was intimidating. I‘m not sure if what I was playing still qualified as a beat. It sounded like a sneaker in the dryer.
In total I took piano lessons for about six years and drums for three. I used to do a Jerry Lee Lewis medley for my family where I wore a glove on one hand so I could slide the keys harder during “Great Balls of Fire.” My kit growing up was pretty sweet, about eight pieces. Again, I was nothing great, just a pounder. I played in all the bands at school and had some guys over to play Zeppelin occasionally. Never got above that. No gigs. Mix in a little percussion, xylophone and hand bells just to seal the deal that I wouldn't be getting girls. That was my musical career.
What are your favorite Umphrey's songs?
“Wizard Burial Ground” because it’s hard and dirty. “Divisions” because of drums. “The Floor” is hypnotic. “All In Time.”