I swear, this did not color my impression of Umphrey’s McGee’s performance; I was happy as pumpkin pie when we got inside and I stood in line happily for my beer. Plenty of room in the balcony and the crowd was rockin’. The first “Jimmy Stewart” contained lyrics and was so fully-formed I assumed it was an actual song I’d never heard (thank you, internet), but I wasn’t overly impressed. I will freely admit that I really enjoy Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” and it is a perfect addition to any Umphrey’s set, even with the Charlie Sheen lyrical adjustments (GET OVER IT, PEOPLE).
That’s when things started to get annoying. They played “The Haunt”, sank down into a very quiet holding pattern, bassist Ryan Stasik bent over and started fiddling with knobs or something, and guitarist Jake Cinninger just walked over and started talking to frontman Brendan Bayliss and drummer Kris Myers. This is not the kind of intuitive, nonverbal communication I’m used to experiencing with this band. It would’ve been justifiable, I suppose, if the conversation had led to something musically interesting, but for quite a while nobody did anything at all to move the music forward. Finally, keyboardist Joel Cummins started in on a TRONlike spacey drone, drawing the rest of the band into what continued to be the most boring jam of the night.
The “Jazz Odyssey” out of “Women Wine & Song” was okay but pretty generic cock rock, gradually picking up speed but never turning into anything unique, and the set ended with “Go To Hell”, which can potentially be a sizzler but tonight it came off as 80s Satriani-style cheese plus some Buckethead worship of the highest order. I’m being overly critical here, because these are super talented musicians on a stage playing some complicated music quite well. I realize this, but I know they’re capable of much more. On to set two.
“Divisions” provided the improvisational highlight of the night. It began, unfortunately, with a drum/percussion duet that was utterly pointless, but eventually developed into an intriguing melodic, half-ambient slow-burner. But again, Jake, Brendan and Ryan were up there just talking freely amongst themselves like we weren’t even there. I’m not saying this devalues the music completely, but it does sort of ruin the mystique, and let’s face it: group improv is a lot more challenging when you don’t discuss what you’re going to do in real time. Admittedly, I couldn’t HEAR a word they said; maybe they were talking politics, but I still felt a bit insulted.
I normally dig “Der Bluten Kat”, but tonight all the metal inflections were coming off as a mere conveyance, a device, possibly a crutch, with none of the weight that these guys can project when they’re taking it seriously. “Mullet (Over)” became another highlight of the set purely by not being on the corny side of prog; they pulled this tune off extremely well, especially Jake. It didn’t really jive with the rest of the set, but it was a welcome respite, honestly. Then Brendan congratulated the Packers--really? “Deeper” was little more than a placeholder so they could get out the stupid “we support Charlie Sheen” comment, and that was about all I needed to hear; how original, an unrepentant wastoid loser has made it hip to worship TMZ nation and we’re all along for the ride.
Pretty sure at least some of the guys were hammered by this point; Guns N' Roses’ “It’s So Easy” seemed appropriate, but it bordered on incompetent. Then Stasik lifted his bass off his shoulder, and Bayliss turned around with a look on his face like ‘oh, we’re done?’ When they came out for the encore, Stasik asked if we wanted a mellow song or a heavy song, and we all screamed “MELLOW” as loudly as we could. Just kidding. They proceeded to play my favorite UM song, “Wizard Burial Ground”, and they annihilated us with it. Almost made the whole thing worthwhile. In fact, it was totally worthwhile, though; like any band that takes risks in live performance, Umphrey’s has the potential to fall flat. Sometimes it takes a stinker like Thursday night to make us appreciate how awesome this band is on a good night. Bring on Summer Camp!