Umphrey’s McGee is a band. Simple statement right? Maybe a little too simple to the untrained eye, but it holds a lot of weight and it really means something. I’m speaking about raw talent, and the success of using it to it’s fullest potential. The spirit of “bandship” prevails in the digital age my friends. If the apocalypse occurred, and in the fallout our civilization was bereft of all technological luxuries, the members of UM would still be able to pick up acoustics and melt faces if they so desired. It’s true. They have never fallen into a significant rut, nor have they ever gone on hiatus. Musical preference aside, they are consistent, and that is a crucial factor in the success of a jamband. Right now the band is smack in the middle of a tour that will stretch into their New Years Run in Colorado, and they’ve already announced dates with Kung Fu in February. This is why they currently rank as one of the top touring jambands in the country; They practice, and they play. Last Friday night I got to catch the guys perform at the Calvin Theater in Northampton, MA for their 87th show this year.
The first set was nothing too fancy(pun intended) compared to past triumphs, but when it was good, it was really good. The “Le Blitz> 1348” show-opener took me back to John Travolta thrusting that epinephrine into Uma Thurman’s chest in Pulp Fiction, quite the rush. At least for the first five minutes. The adrenaline faded in the jam out of “1348”, until the crowd received their first drum solo via Kris Meyers that is. Still, Umphrey’s struck me more as a technical and diverse rock band rather than a dynamic jamband during the first set. They were holding something back. Out of the entire set, really only a few songs breached the confines of their written structure with extended improv. The jams themselves couldn’t seem to travel, and lacked the thematic, animated style they often perform with. Imagine a group of trapeze artists represents the improvised sections. They’d make the move forward and tread the line, but wouldn’t get very far before dropping into the safety net. They simply weren’t taking a lot of risks. To be honest Brendan Bayliss himself was a highlight. He really took the lead in the first set, proving himself in some of those solos as a truly brilliant guitarist. “Red Tape” was short but impressive to say the least. Joel Cummings had a lot to say in the last 4 minutes or so, eventually providing a niche for Bayliss and percussionist Andy Faragto to “converse”. Although UM executed their songs well the first set just couldn’t reach the level they are capable of. The crowd didn’t seem to mind one bit though, the energy in the Calvin that night was insane. Bayliss commented on it twice, and guitarist Jake Cinninger later said it was the biggest crowd they’ve played for at the venue.
That energy eventually found it’s way to the stage in the 2nd set. The circus was live and alive. In a matter of seconds that stage went off like a detonated bomb was triggered by their instruments. They skipped the foreplay and commenced the set with the syncopated fury of “Nothing Too Fancy”. This is an aggressive tune that usually passes into lengthy territory, but instead they channeled that momentum to the Zappa-esque “Ringo”, melding the two into one long funky marathon. Finally pausing after a total 30 minutes of unrelenting funk and ferocity, Umphrey’s covered John Lennon’s deeply personal ballad, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. More often than not these covers can come off as a tad gimmicky. Because bands like these spend so much time mastering the ins and outs of their own compositions(ex: transitions, sandwiches, palindrome setlists), they tend not to get too creative with the covers. Granted it’s not like you’re going to see the original musicians play it any time soon, but it often takes away time that could be used to develop a theme during one of their own songs. These guys don’t like to come up short though. UM didn’t play this classic outside of it’s original outline, but they did an absolutely phenomenal job performing it. The vocals were notably great, and naturally Cinninger and Bayliss nailed the guitar, which is crucial to that particular song. After exiting the heavenly embrace of “Dear Lord” and completing the transition back into “Der Bluten Kat”, they drifted into a psychedelic jam featuring a very skillful use of basically every noise you could make with guitar without actually fully strumming a chord or a note. This went on until it escalated into a full blown dance party, and ladies and gentlemen when Umphrey’s wants you too dance, you dance. The roof didn’t have a chance.
Up until the set closing cover of “Reelin’ In The Years” by Steely Dan, the 2nd set really didn’t include a lot of singing, rather almost pure jamming and working through compositions. It was magnificent. I had a hard time hearing Joel in the 2nd set for some reason. Upon listening to the soundboards he definitely put in some work that night. At one point Jake ripped into a two-minute solo using exclusively palm-mutes and harmonics that was stunningly deranged. With the full moon on Friday night, I bet if you looked close enough you could see Hendrix waving a white towel from above the clouds.
Watching these guys play, right in front of you, that’s where all the magic is. The way they correspond with each other, walking up to each other face to face as they play, and the places they go, it’s just as visually enticing as musically. There is a strong, chemical bond shared between each individual member. Bayliss and Cinninger play off of each other like a table tennis match between Olympic Gold Medalist Ryu Seung-Min and Forrest Gump. That kind of chemistry can’t be missed, and to see it wriggle and bounce and strike you the way it does is amazing. You can just tell they love what they do, they’re great at it, and they were born to do it together. I find it hard to imagine any connoisseur of music leaving totally unsatisfied last Friday night. All in all, Umphrey’s McGee played a 6.5/10
Setlist for 10/18/2013 @ The Calvin Theater- Northampton, MA Set 1- Le Blitz > 1348 > Example 1 > Slacker> Great American Partyin' Peeps Red Tape
Set 2- Nothing Too Fancy> Ringo I Want You (She's so Heavy) Der Bluten Kat> Dear Lord> Der Bluten Kat, Reelin' in the Years Encore: Den> Nothing Too Fancy