On the fourth and final Colorado date of their current tour, Umphrey's McGee took the stage at the Fox Theater in Boulder to a full house supported by a loyal Midwest contingency in the house. Cubs caps were everywhere.
Opening band OM Trio set the stage with a refreshing set of tight jazz and funk-flavored instrumentals that reminds one of Medeski Martin & Wood's atmospheric explorations but are unique in their less spacey, intricate phrasing. As UM launched into their first set, I couldn't help noticing the fullness of their sound. The six musicians cozily filled the Fox stage and I was immediately impressed with the interplay between guitarists Brendan Bayliss (also the lead vocalist) and Jake Cinninger, who have developed a very precise partnership. In a sense, they both handle lead guitar duties. Often, they will seamlessly play the same notes to enlarge the overall sound and then play off each other's riffs to build harmonies. In "Jazz Odyssey" Jake would pick up the end of Brendan's riff and add his own exclamation on it. This type of synergy is a rare and hard-earned thing.
UM's eclectic miasma of sound is uniquely their own, but one can't help but contemplate their diverse musical influences. Their genre-jumping range of cover tunes offer telltale clues to the music they've absorbed. Recently, UM has been diverging into more metal-flavored songs with teases of Megadeth and Guns 'n Roses showing up, while shows in years past tended to yield more classic rock samples from Rush and Zeppelin. Tonight's set reflected Umphrey's usual eclectic mix of genres, but the overall sound was more hard-edged than I expected.
UM's typical song structure is full of complex sections requiring tight musicianship and communication to pull off. It reminds one of the orchestral and quirky compositions explored by Zappa's Mothers of Invention. Because of this artistic inclination, the "prog rock" label has been used more than once to describe their sound. UM are not merely a jam band or a rock band. They're a melting pot. Whatever musical inclinations you hold, you're bound to connect with some of their songs. It also means that you'll be challenged to expand your musical horizons as they explore those other territories. Which isn't such a bad thing.
Their first cover song of the night closed the first set. It was an incredibly well executed, fully developed version of Pink Floyd's "Shine on You Crazy Diamond." Brendan's vocals evoked a tortured Roger Waters and were complimented by Jake's playing and singing as David Gilmour. The Fox's spiraling light show held up its part as well. A great way to end the set.
The second set kicked off with some new songs, including a new piece entitled "Bridgeless." In these opening songs, Joel Cummins spread his wings a bit and dropped a little bit of funk and a lot of atmospheric space. Cinninger, at one point, walked behind the drum kit to feed a little energy to drummer Kris Myers, who proceeded to beat the tar out of his skins. One observation about Myers' drums this night is that he sometimes dominated the band's overall sound. Add in the rhythms of conga player Andy Farag and it seemed that the percussion overshadowed the melody at times. When Ilya Stemkovsky from OM Trio joined for "Jimmy Stewart," he demonstrated a syncopated finesse that contrasted with Myers more powerful style.
Of the various genres exhibited in this show, heavy metal took center stage more than a few times. A cover of Metallica's "And Justice for All" in the second set incited a mosh pit in a typically hippy-friendly dance floor and I had to laugh when a waitress was able to settle the boys down so that she could serve them drinks. Kris sang Jim Hetfield's lyrics while playing Lars Ulrich's instrument. When a guy standing in front of me inexplicably fell to the ground like a tree, I sensed that the metal frenzy had achieved its purpose of blowing the audience away.
Bassist Ryan Stasik held up his side of the rhythm section admirably through the entire show. While the drumming tended to be workmanlike and the keyboards were sometimes buried in the mix, Stasik's strong bass rhythms seemed to dance with quicksilver agility. Not limited to one instrument, he at one point played a shaker with one hand and the bass with the other. In another song, he used his effects machine to produce, thanks to the Fox's phenomenal sound system, bone-shaking subwoofer reverberations to the crowds' delight.
UM will be touring extensively through the East Coast through February and then work their way through the Southern states during April. This band is gaining confidence in their original material which is evolving with their lineup. This show dwelled on metal influences a fair amount and it will be interesting to see how far they take that path. But, like an artist who explores one style or color for a period, UM is experimenting with yet another flavor for its stew. They're good enough musicians to pull it off and for an audience who's willing to go there with them, it will be worth the ride.
Set One: All In Time, Sociable Jimmy > Jazz Odyssey > White Man's Moccasins, Slacker, Prowler > Bright Lights, Shine On You Crazy Diamond
Set Two: Bridgeless, Uncommon > Nothing Too Fancy > Jimmy Stewart, And Justice for All, Nemo, Kabump > Jazz Odyssey > Wife Soup, JaJunk
(Thanks to umphreysmcgee.com for the setlist.)
Words by: Haig Assadourian
Images by: Tony Stack
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