People in the jam band community like to over-analyze and over-categorize improv, but there are really just two good kinds: that which flies off into the complete unknown, and that which returns triumphantly to something known. Umphrey’s McGee has mastered this latter form, and proves consistently that half the joy in stepping a bit out of ourselves is the comfort of finding ourselves back on familiar ground.
The UM buzz grows steadily as the band continues to make all the requisite festival stops, jam with the requisite guests, and play the requisite left-field covers, but it’s clear from the beginning of night two at the Barrymore that the group’s fan base is immersed in its mythology; the crowd cheers excitedly in anticipation and not just in appreciation. It’s a testament to Umphrey’s’ growing legend and prowess, and while the scene is currently inundated with talented noodly guitar solos, only the truly unique groups can generate this kind of devotion.
The show began in fairly typical fashion, and the first “‘Jimmy Stewart’” of the night faded pretty quickly into “Walletsworth,” which built and peaked nicely. “Intentions Clear” followed, displaying evidence that lead guitarist Brendan Bayliss may have picked up a thing or two from hanging out with maniacal guitar shredder Buckethead. Still, the electric solos stood out from the rest of the instruments, failing to create a true group surge. The highlight of the first set was the acoustic guitar interlude of “End of the Road,” “The Girl Is Mine” (featuring Jane’s Addiction’s “Jane Says” sandwiched inside), and “August,” which began with acoustic guitars and finished with some terrific mayhem by the band as a whole. While Bayliss’s electric guitar work is often blatantly derivative, his acoustic lead work is all his own, and the interplay between his and Jake Cinninger’s guitars on this night was often breathtaking in its synchronicity. The acoustic jams really soared and developed thick tension without relying on drone. Very impressive stuff.
The set closed with “August” bleeding beautifully into “Out of Order,” which showcased Joel Cummins’s organ work to increasingly proggy effect, almost channeling Rick Wakeman at times. However, UM’s true prog inspiration has to be King Crimson; no other band in recent memory rides the line between complex composition and melodic improv so effectively, interspersing elements of jazz and metal into a classically intricate framework. As a whole, the first set had some good, fluid segues but nothing rhythmically seamless. There were no jams that swirled into outer space; there were concise pinnacles without a wasted note. Economical and intense. Even intense enough at times to make me forget about the vomit that had been sprayed on me from the balcony. Set break: clean up, collect my thoughts, anticipate.
Set II opened with the Rush-esque precision of “All in Time,” which alternately bubbled and rocked before settling into a funk groove; it was interesting, but the genre-jumping began to feel a tad over-calculated. Eventually as the flow swelled, though, we experienced some truly unique UM energy, and some more “‘Jimmy Stewart’” (a designation both limiting and provocative—the possibilities are endless, but why nail this down with a name? It seems just a bit arbitrary, doesn’t it?) that began as that whitest type of reggae, but it fulfilled its function as the perfect segue vehicle. Later on, “Wife Soup” built to a metallic climax as Bayliss finally busted out some truly raging electric guitar. While most jam bands only acknowledge metal in a reactionary sense, as if metal were the yang to their mellow yin, UM actually provides some symbiosis. Whereas it has been easy at times to see the metal element as ironic or mocking (i.e., “Sister Christian?” Come ON.), I’m beginning to believe in it now.
What followed was a singular exercise in proactive group consciousness. No less than five people around me simultaneously started whispering about “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” as “Ringo” melted into ambience…and the Pink Floyd classic duly materialized. It not only thrilled us on this level; it had the effect of helping us to experience how sublime it must feel as a guitarist to play those notes just that way…guest saxophonist Kevin Sinclair was the icing on the cake. The band eased back into “Ringo” to close the fantastic set.
The encores were a blistering display of twin guitar madness, showcasing this essence of UM’s style, owing as much to Thin Lizzy as anything else. The two axemen fiercely picked in perfect harmony and rhythm, not really needing to make anything up. The energy of UM is much less in the improv than most bands that make up its scene of residence. These men are composers and ensemble players, and the trick lies in the togetherness, summed up beautifully in the final acoustic encore of Led Zeppelin’s “Thats The Way.” We don’t need them to take us out into space; they show us the beauty in coming back down to Earth. There is no denying that these guys wear their influences on their sleeves, but the synthesis of these varied and eclectic ingredients is itself a thrilling combination. So many other bands sound so much like just one band that came before them. Here’s to Umphrey’s McGee for making so much more spring to mind.