I sometimes forget how good Umphrey's McGee is. Maybe it's the sheer density of distraction on the West Coast, especially in the SF region where I live. Whatever the reason, coming back to their music I'm always struck by the technical ecstasy of this young Chicago crew. They have all the chops of Tool without the gloom and manufactured mystery. There's never a doubt they've been practicing their fingering and burning the midnight oil making sure that their lines are clean, clever, crisp. They are the link between '70s acts like Frank Zappa and ELO and today's 30-minute mountain jam playing generation. Toss in a healthy dollop of Eddie Van Halen in the guitar solos and you have some notion of their sound. But actually seeing them strut is a different matter entirely. One of the things that makes this DVD so welcome is it allows those of us who've missed out on the live UM experience to see what fun they have in action.

Filmed over July 26 and 27 of 2002, we get two full sets, the whole jam enchilada so to speak. Despite a cheeky way with a cover that's part Spinal Tap, part genuine homage, the band wisely chose to focus on originals. This disc lays out the template for their live sets giving neophytes a door into their world.

Hit play and you're right there on stage with the lads. No handshake other than what they play. This is a glimpse of their original drummer, Mike Mirro, who has since vacated his chair to the brilliant Kris Myers, who, as they say, picked up right where Mirro left off. The bookends of "All in Time (Parts 1 and 2)" signal the wistful quality to Mike's departure. In many respects, this collection is a fitting tribute to his contribution to what they do.

They are such a clean-cut group of youngsters that it's hard to believe they're a rock band. Like moe., they just don't look the part (with the possible exception of percussionist Andy Farag, who rocks a proto-afro in this footage). Think this comes from making the music, not the image, the priority. Despite looking like they have fun being on stage they also can't shed the deadly seriousness they regard their craft with. Who has the energy to worry about leather pants and silk shirts when there's a nifty time signature to nail down?

The camera stays on them for the most part. Revelers in the audience are hit on as a sort of exclamation point to a moment. There is a nice freeze frame montage near the end highlighting their supporters in the story so far. There's split screens, dissolves, superimposed close-ups and other simple gimmickry to keep things lively. The time elapsed shots of the Navy Pier complex with the sun rising and setting in a spaced out moment are quite lovely. The Skyline Stage is a perfect spot for a project that clearly means so much to them. You can't get much more Chicago than Navy Pier, visible from the long road that circles Lake Michigan as you cruise the perimeter of the city. A hometown hallmark for a hometown group.

Jake Cinninger by Susan J. Weiand
There's a lot of real meat in the set lists, too. Highlights include the reggae burble of "Utopian Fur," the "Andy's Last Beer" that pours out of the splendid "Jimmy Stewart" freakout, the slow climb towards "Hajimemashite," and the frizzled burning synth on "Pay the Snucka (Pt. III)." For all the justly deserved accolades heaped upon guitarists/singers Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger, my main man in Umphrey's remains keyboardist Joel Cummins, who never fails to enliven the proceedings. Glad to see he gets a solo segment here where he puts the grand in an acoustic piano.

I tend to tune into the instrumental sections more than the singing if only because their reliance on broad concepts, anthemic group delivery and cute shtick (Mullet Over indeed) don't exactly woo me. I'm warming up to their lyrics and found a few more lines sticking with me by the end of this show. Still, if forced to choose a single favorite moment it would be the "Hurt Bird Bath" that opens the second set, a song graceful in all respects including the sharp verses.

The disc contains four different audio mixes including the current darling of the audiophile set, 5.1 DTS. Extras include a discussion of creative things that can be done with peanut butter, a visit from Chicago's finest, an extensive (and excellent) photo gallery from Michael Weintrob, and bios of the boys that include their favorite foods, venues, and gas stations. The inclusion of height, weight, and date of birth may be too much information but will please all those keeping stalker notebooks.

It's a pleasure to share in these two nights. I would be surprised if anyone who watches this isn't motivated to make the experience 3-D the next time Umphrey's McGee comes through their town.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | Worldwide
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[Published on: 2/3/04]

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