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Progressive Rock Concert Reviews

Umphrey's McGee

Umphrey’s McGee – Live in Morrison, Colorado, July 2010

Review by Scott Montgomery

Coming off recent triumphs at Bonnaroo and Wakarusa in early June, the Chicago sextet Umphrey’s McGee brought its progressive jam juggernaut to the mighty Red Rocks Amphitheatre for a celebration dubbed “Red Rocks and Blue.”  Joining forces with New Orleans funkateers Galactic and reggae stalwarts The Wailers, the Red Rocks concert was the spectacular main event of a Fourth of July weekend celebration that also included smaller venue performances by Galactic and Umphrey’s McGee at Denver’s Gothic Theatre on July 2nd and 4th respectively. 
This was Umphrey’s McGee first time headlining Red Rocks and the opportunity clearly meant a great deal to the band.  Red Rocks is a legendary venue, one that has a long history of inspiring brilliant performances as it always seems to bring out the magic…..and I would venture that it certainly did just that on July 3.  Additionally, for Umphrey’s McGee and their fan base, the site has the mythos of being one of the über-venues for performances by the Grateful Dead, the String Cheese Incident and other groups linked as much by cultural as by musical lines.  This was not a concert, it was a cultural event. 

Umphrey’s McGee fuse exploratory aspects of the great musical pioneer spirit that sprang from the late-1960s – most obviously the extended jam explorations of the Grateful Dead and other San Francisco bands as well as the complex sophistication of Zappa and the Mothers who regularly challenged and reconstructed the paradigms of rock and other genres.  Add a little techno-groove and we have a substantial cross-section of many decades of musical development in the United States.  What better way to commemorate the ideal spirit of the country than to revel in the ongoing dynamic synthesis and comfortable cohabitation of musical traditions that have emerged within this great cultural experiment that is America? 

The crowd/scene was culturally distinct, largely falling into the expected shiny happy groovy band scene – lots of smiling and dancing, face and body paint, glow sticks, hats (great hats!), Uncle Sam, free Ben and Jerry’s samples in the parking lot, glow sticks (lots of ‘em), scraggly beards and blond dreadlocks, waifish fairies with wings, hula-hoops and hemp ice cream.  From the Grateful Dead to Phish to Umphrey’s McGee and others there is a discernible continuity of cultural demographics.  Multi-generational (at least four generation) tribes abounded, demonstrating the longevity and continuity of this particular subculture.  However, the marked majority of the crowd seemed to fall into the college and not-going-to-college age bracket – middle class kids dancing in countercultural motifs established over forty years ago.  Maybe it is the inveterate Deadhead in me, but I find it refreshing and reassuring to know that this is still going on.  While it is true that every concert is about more than just the music, this was always more pronounced at a Grateful Dead show, which was more like a freakish carnival with a musical focus, than a traditional concert.  This being the case now too with Umphrey’s McGee, a review of their concert would be incomplete without some note of the overall feeling, atmosphere and tenor of the crowd, as all are integral to the total experience. 

Scott Montgomery
Between the sets by Galactic and Umphrey’s McGee, the audience was spontaneously treated to a fireworks display in the near-distance – a suitable  prelude to the pyrotechnics of Umphrey’s McGee’s performance. 

Amidst a hail of glow sticks, Umphrey’s McGee launched into their set with a portion of the meaty title track from their recent Mantis album.  The first “number” was actually a composite of “Mantis – Mantis Ghetts – Mantis – Ocean Billy,” that barreled along for thirty minutes.  From the opening fusillade of “Mantis,” the band started in fifth gear – roaring through complex, shifting rhythmic topography and melodic variations with gusto and aplomb.  The vocal harmonies were beautifully handled by Brendon Bayliss, Joel Cummins, and Kris Myers, while Jake Cinninger unleashed an astounding, exquisite, big soaring guitar solo that veritably shook the red walls all around.  Within minutes, Umphrey’s had undeniably demonstrated great capacity for compositional dynamics, excellent vocal harmonies, collective instrumental interweaving, and the capacity for mighty, majestic guitar soloing – as though illustrating the conviction stated in the opening line of “Mantis”: “We believe there’s something here worth dying for.”  Indeed!  And for the next two hours, Umphrey’s McGee played as though they meant every word of it.  This is a band to experience live. 

A powerful rhythmic underpinning was deftly supplied by drummer Myers and bassist Ryan Stasik, with some help by percussionist Andy Farag.  Guitarists Cinninger and Bayless and keyboard player Cummins added abundant coloration, texture, and out-and-out solo dynamics.  While many of Umphrey’s McGee’s older tunes are quite good, they often pale a little in comparison to the greater sophistication of the more recent tunes included on Mantis.  Nonetheless, the material – old and new – works well together to fashion a fine stew of sounds and sources.  The more techno-influenced groove of the lengthy “Wappy Sprayberry” contrasted rather effectively with the dynamic compositional complexity of the opening medley.  It did carry on a bit into a slightly lackluster jam, though one can only admire the band’s willingness to take risks and explore – teasing more and more out of a song.  Sometimes it works better than other-times, but who can fault them for trying? Umphrey’s McGee have a way of keeping the momentum forward-looking so that something interesting always seems to come out of it.  When this morphed into the sweet soul groove of “Booth Love,” all was resolved. 

Scott Montgomery
Seamlessly transitioning into the smooth syncopation topped with some tasteful wah-wah guitar and garnished with nice harmony vocals, the band quickly found the sweet spot again as they carried on through “1348-Hajimenmashite-1348” and then “Hangover.”  Dropping into a weirdly syncopated spatial jam, marked by quick repeated guitar patterns, the band revealed some of its King Crimson influence (more the 1981 incarnation than the 1969 or 1974 versions) in its crisp yet dense constructions with angular repeated figures.  Ever-morphing, this shifted on into a delightfully weaving jam that flitted in and out of Dead show refractions.  Here is a band that can seamlessly navigate between seemingly unrelated rock traditions and bring them into strange accord.  This dynamic, fluid fusion of styles and approaches seems to be what Umphry’s McGee are all about – and they do it with gusto, that at times attains brilliance.

The lengthy finale consisted of “Mulche’s Odyssey” leading into the closing portions of “Mantis” - and what an epic odyssey it was!  The band positively roared into a rip-screaming jam, churning with splendid, complex syncopation and blistering guitar work.  They positively nailed this, as the brilliance and intensity of the jam brought forth spontaneous whoops of appreciation from the crowd.  These were not cheers of recognition of familiar material, but the uncontrollable bursts of enthusiasm in response to the momentary brilliance of spontaneous composition and fire played at a fevered pitch.  They found the mystic spot of high-level perfect intensity and rode it for a solid five or six minutes – a feat of musical wizardry that left me awe-struck (few bands can sustain this type of intensity for more than a minute).  Roaring along, driven by some ferocious, heavy-hitting drumming from Kris Myers, the jam just kept increasing in intensity as it slid into the “Mantis” coda with a vengeance.  The “monster ending” was truly gargantuan, with stunning twin guitar work that reminded me a little of Wishbone Ash at its peak.  Electric, scorchingly intense, yet magnificently tasteful and not overdone, this frenzied peak brought Umphrey’s McGee’s main set to a perfect, jaw-dropping conclusion.  In bringing it all back to “Mantis” they neatly tied the entire set together – framed by the bookends of the beginning and end of “Mantis.”  For all the set’s fantastic looseness, there was a clear order at work – and it worked splendidly, as the performance came across as a complex, organic totality.

The first encore – “The Triple Wide” – was an infectious space groove thing that rollicked along with the steady insistence of a pre-recorded beat.  I do not, personally, abide well with pre-recorded rhythm tracks, and was initially taken aback.  Before long, however, Myers’ muscular drumming took over the central rhythmic duties and the song churned on with increased vim.  Building upon this complex multi-rhythmic basis, Bayliss added some very tasteful right-hand guitar tapping to provide a Frippian (or Belewesque) feel, while Cummins and Cinnnger swirled and soared on keyboards and guitars respectively.

Scott Montgomery
The final encore selection was the result of an on-line fan poll as to which cover song should be played by the composite 13-members of the two bands, as Galactic joined Umphrey’s McGee for a superjam.  In a perfect illustration of the musical hybridity that characterized the evening, Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” was surprisingly blended with Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic.” Rather than connecting the two songs sequentially as in a medley format, the über-group interwove them, fusing them into a brilliant compositional conceit that moved back and forth between the two seemingly diverse songs.  The high-register vocals were deftly delivered by Bayliss, without sounding like an imitation of Jackson, while the Galactic horns took on the vocal line melody of Hendrix’s piece.  This was not so much a cover song as it was a cleverly-conceived and exquisitely executed musical collage – indeed one of the highlights of the evening.

I went to the concert pondering the ongoing (and occasionally contentious) debate regarding how one might classify Umphrey’s McGee.  Are they a prog band, a jam band, or something else entirely?  In many ways Umphrey’s McGee illustrate just how problematic such taxonomical predilection can be, as they do not neatly fit squarely within either of these, admittedly fluid and problematic genre descriptors.  I prefer to think of it as something that might be loosely termed “progressive jam rock” – essentially jammy music that is simultaneously dense, complex, tightly composed, and quite sophisticated.  Their invert counterpart might be the Flower Kings who are essentially a symphonic prog band with a predilection toward jamming that is not common in many of the varied prog subgenres.  Umphrey’s McGee reminds me of good old days when we did not worry about labeling musical genres so much – it was just good music.  In the case of this evening, they fit very well with the more jam and groove themed line-up of the evening, which brought the jam-side of Umphrey’s McGee to the forefront.  Were they to be placed on a bill with more overtly progressive bands, perhaps the prog-side would be put into higher relief.  Along these lines, I could not help but fantasize about a line-up that paired Umphrey’s McGee with the glorious amphibian prog quirk of Frogg Café – a band that should be investigated by many-a-fan of Umphrey’s McGee. 

Umphrey’s McGee have essentially the same line-up as the Grateful Dead during much of their lengthy run – two guitars, two drummers/percussionists, bass, and keyboards, several of whom sing.  It is interesting how these bands could have the same instrumentation while sounding so very different.  Yet there is some ineffable affinity between the bands - not in terms of sound, but rather in terms of vibe, feel, and culture.  Umphrey’s McGee can sail on nicely with something that borders on “Dead jam” territory, but does not so much sound exactly like it as it elides with the ebullient Grateful vibe, though with a distinctly more pronounced bite and intensity.  With the suite-like structure of some of their songs, and the seamless flow of different movements, I paused to muse how much of Umphrey’s McGee’s music is “proggy” in ways similar to the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station.  However, unlike the more frequent consistency of the Gratefeul Dead’s composition and performance dynamic, Umphrey’s McGee utilizes more abrupt shifts – creating numerous dynamic changes within a single composition.  Sometimes it works more effectively than others, as the transitions can occasionally be a bit clunky and/or uncomfortably discordant.  However, the band invariably gathers enough steam with speed and skill that any awkward transformation transgressions are soon forgotten… long down the road behind….as Umphrey’s McGee deftly sails onward and upward.

Scott Montgomery
All pigeon-holing of the music notwithstanding, the overwhelming feel of the crowd and the atmosphere was more in line with the celebratory bliss of a Dead-inspired jam band event than a prog concert (which all-too-often is characterized by a certain cultivated stuffiness within prognoscenti culture).  Culturally, the crowd certainly weighed in on the side of the festive jam tradition.  That said, it is wonderful to see how successfully Umphrey’s McGee brings some of the complexity and dynamics associated with modern prog into the realm (and ears) of the dancing jam scene.  Though I arrived with the academic question “more Dead or more Crim?” in my head, and left with an inclination toward the Grateful side of the query, I certainly did hear some seriously Crimmy bits, particularly akin to the power of later Crimson of the 1990s onward.  Bayliss’ hand-tapping technique, very effectively used on the encore “The Triple Wide,” adds a dense, rhythmic syncopation that is distinctly redolent of fine Frippery.  Additionally, I found the more angular, faster, biting intensity of the band more in line with latter-day Crimson than with metal bands or other practitioners of angst-ridden hystrionics.  The other strong component, not always addressed, was the techno-groove influence, particularly apparent when Cinninger moved to synthesizer for “Wappy Sprayberry.”  While building upon a steady, driving groove, this facet of the band does not rest in trance-land, but neatly moves through a nice array of changing musical landscapes and dynamics.  Despite some tremendously big solos and instrumental flights, there is nothing gratuitous about Umphrey’s McGee’s live performance.  It all seems to serve the greater fusion of influences that marks this decidedly eclectic band’s oeuvre.    

A word should be said regarding the lighting, which was effective without being over-the-top lavish.  Boldly colored spots, swirl and whorl patterns, and varying designs projected on the bare, red rock sound-shell behind the band created a visually effective, shifting lightscape that beautifully incorporated the physical space into the aesthetic space.  Fog effects, accentuating the spatial presence of circular spot lights, added nicely to the atmosphere.  While not overshadowing the music, these effects brought a visual element that compensated for the band’s no-nonsense approach of focusing attention on playing music rather than leaping about like rock-star puppets.  It is this emphasis on undistracted creation of music that allows Umphrey’s McGee to push the musical envelope while remaining focused.  The lighting simply adds to the multi-mediation of the event, allowing sound and vision to work in concert to produce an effective and stimulating environment for the dancing, smiling, and whatever other activities the audience wished to engage in.  By shifting appearance amidst the ever-changing pattern of projected lighting effects, the rocks themselves were able to become part of the total experience – bringing the venue to life within the lively activity of the concert.  This is what a good Red Rocks show is all about.

Anyone who has attended a show at Red Rocks knows that spontaneous bursts of rain are all-too-common.  Indeed, some have remarked that the best shows in the venue are marked by “weather incidents” (see U2’s dramatic Under a Blood Red Sky film for the most famous example).  Despite rain clouds, lighting, and even a faint trace of a rainbow visible over Denver in the distance, Red Rocks Amphitheatre itself was spared the storm.  There was, however, plenty of electricity on the air – emanating from the bands and from the crowd.  Walking, sauntering and dancing back through the colorful carnival caravan culture of the parking lot in the early hours of July 4th, the jubilation was palpable, audible, and infectious.  Happy Birthday indeed, America!

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Scott Montgomery
This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2010  Volume 4 at
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