Umphrey's McGee: Riviera, 2/22

Tue Feb 25 2014

Sadly, this is going to turn into one of those meta-review-type situations that I sometimes frown upon. The fact that I keep getting into these mental quandaries with Umphrey’s suggests that either they’re one of my favorite bands, or that I should quit going to see them altogether, but neither of these is actually the case. Argh. My apologies if you’ve heard or read some of these points before.

One thing I know I've said before that stared me straight in the face at the Riviera on Saturday: I felt again like I've got these guys figured out. It's not that fact by itself that damages their impact on me; it's that they play a kind of music that I don't want to be able to figure out. I want unpredictability, to feel like anything could happen at any time, and I don't. I feel like they've found a formula that works well on their fanbase, and that lately they've been sticking to it.

There are undoubtedly plateaus of understanding of this band's music, and on some levels I'm clueless. I rarely listen to recordings of live shows, so I'm not going to recognize a "Jimmy Stewart" that's being repeated from a show a few months ago. I couldn't have definitively told you the name of a single non-cover that they played on Saturday, in fact. I know a handful of lyrics to maybe a couple dozen songs of theirs, and truthfully, I haven't delved deeper because so far I've found very little worthwhile substance in the words. I don't want to create more reasons to have problems with this band. At certain times, I absolutely love this band. But not this show.

There was a time, maybe from about 2006 through the beginning of 2010 or so, when Umphrey's seemed to be focused on some seriously unpredictable collective freeform improv, group jams that would blossom naturally and not necessarily end in a twin-guitar cock-rock peak, but Saturday night's show had me questioning whether this was ever actually the case. Maybe I just didn't have enough shows under my belt to notice that every Umphrey's jam winds up in a twin-guitar cock-rock peak, but at any rate, they all did on Saturday. Shit, some nights that's basically okay and I can just be content listening to Jake shred, because he is a true wizard, but this time it really got to me.

I'll admit they didn't play any of my favorite tunes, but that wouldn't make a bit of difference if they were blowing my mind with improv. I'll also admit that I'm probably not a big enough fan for any of the shit they played to resonate emotionally with me the way it obviously did for a ton of long-time hometown fans, and for that I salute UM; I wish Phish would be more like them in that respect. It definitely felt like they were playing for the diehards, and I'm positive there were plenty of significant moments that a guy just there to absorb crazy music regardless of history is not gonna catch. This band has flat-out blown my mind plenty of times in the past, and it can't have been purely because of my inexperience, can it?

But when Brendan asks "Wanna get weird?" and then proceeds to play another proggy anthem that climaxes with a twin-guitar cock-rock peak, that bugs me, because I wanna get weird, but Umphrey's never seems to any more. Drum solos, not to mention the whole notion of the unnecessary second drummer, bug me. When over the course of this three-night stand they barely hint at metal, that bugs me. Dual-pinky devil horns fucking bug me. I get the communal bonding thing, but as the night wore on I felt like I was watching salesmen onstage rather than artists. Really musically-proficient salesmen.

On the bright side, the first set was pretty sweet. Joel, who I can't stand on some nights when he's all new-agey cheese-organ, was kind of on fire; I've rarely seen him play with such creativity and fire. Also, the big peaks are more potent when there haven't already been a half dozen of them. And there were certainly moments during the second set's "Der Bluten Kat" that sucked me right in, but there was nothing wildly imaginative or unique all night. I just wish they'd create more spontaneous collective movements like I swear they used to. I get not wanting to be labeled a jam band, but even that's better than solo-after-solo-after-solo band, in most instances.

I realize that fans who are incredibly knowledgeable about the band's various improv frameworks and listen obsessively to the shows the way I do with Phish surely got way more out of Saturday's show than I did. Still, kind of like with Phish last year, it seems that the differences between one jam and the next are getting more and more subtle, often indistinguishable to the layman's ear. Music shouldn't be that much of an intellectual exercise, at least until after the show's over. All I can say is it used to seem like Umphrey's was making an effort to impress me, and they're not any more. And since I don't have a strong emotional connection to very many of their songs, after seeing them 32 times, I may have hit a wall. More likely, though, they'll play Summerfest in a few months and all the diehards will hate it and I'll once again come away totally refilled with excitement and faith in the band. Just can't conceive of how that's going to be possible right now.
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