Umphrey's McGee with Joshua Redman | 02.19.04 | Theater of Living Arts | Philadelphia, PA
A venue name befitting for acts like Pavarotti and Shakespearean plays, the TLA, or the Theater of Living Arts on South Street in Philadelphia, PA is quite the antithesis. The small, hollowed-out shell of a room prepared especially for live music makes it a perfect place to watch live, raw, musical talent.
Mind you, not every band that plays at TLA is raw, but the talent does comprise of young alt rockers as well as various flavors of the jam band scene.
A perfect place, I thought, to hear my first Umphrey's McGee show. Upon doing some homework prior to the show, I read a very diverse range of prose about the band--from comparisons to Zappa's various band projects, to heavy metal, progressive, and improvisational, all in one package. Couple those tidbits with the fact that they hail from Chicago and my imagination was running wild. For these reasons, I resisted the temptation to preview or download any of their tunes so as not to spoil my chance to hear a new sound for the first time. At this point in my life, these moments don't come too often anymore.
The lights go out and I begin to hear traces of Hendrix that quickly faded into a happy, Dead-like, upbeat beginning with "Andy's Last Beer." I liked what I was hearing so far. The song ended when Jake Cinninger (guitar, vocals) got the crowd to clap in unison with him and then handed it off to Brendan Bayliss (guitar, vocals) for a short but very hard jam to finish the opener.
The second song, "Miss Tinkle's Overture," began with a long, orchestral intro which was very old school and a cross between Queen and The Who's "Tommy" with its build up. I guess it's in the name ("Overture"), and the song lived up to it very well. The peaks and valleys I was experiencing was piquing my interest and my musical emotions.
However, I feel the first set hit its zenith at this point. From the slow "Syncopated Strangers" (third song) to the end of the set, I didn't hear much in the way of harmony or a collective vibe. After the beginning, the band seemed to meander in different directions before coming together to finish the set. Allow me to explain.
First, and perhaps purposefully, the light show was dark and unilluminating, which in hindsight, was perfect for the music I was seeing--explorative meandering. The few solos that ensued during this period weren't "lit" up as would be expected to draw one's attention. Instead, the stage was hued with soft colors of low reds and blues that were very unassuming.
Secondly, although Joel Cummins (keyboards, vocals) appeared to be actively contributing, I would have to label him at this point, based on what I was hearing, more of a basic synth player than a keyboardist. I'd define a synth player as someone who adds basic, digital sounds with one or two finger keystrokes, not one who adds rhythm and melodies by playing with all ten fingers as a keyboardist should. Even so, I strained to hear what he was playing and told myself that he could disappear and I'm sure I wouldn't be able to tell he was gone.
Thirdly, I observed very little vocal work that wasn't devoid of any harmony and storytelling. Perhaps, I hoped, this was all part of the plan as we waited for Joshua Redman (guest jazz saxophonist who heads The Elastic Band) to come on in the second set to toot his own horn. Surely, as long as they've played, and with their large following and favorable reviews, they had to be tighter than this... right?
Lastly, the melodic meanderings (at times, even prodding memories of a rock opera) didn't take me to a happy place and seemed to drift without purpose. I actually looked for a mosh pit to form as the heavy metal thumps (compliments of a very sound rhythm section of Ryan Stasik on bass, Andy Farag's percussion, and Kris Myers on drums) and hard overtones dominated. I did love it when, towards the end of the set, Brendan and Jake turned to play off of one another with a feeding frenzy of angry licks, smiling all the way. They were clearly doing it their way and having a good time doing it!
You usually don't get to see two lead guitars sharing the same stage. I was pleased and that dueling session led to a version of Motley Crue's "Dr. Feelgood" which was very hard and reinforced much of the first set's tone of heavy mental and progressive rock 'n' roll.
I happened to take note of first set head bobbing, and not body shaking, which usually follows this scene. Where was the traditional Chicago influence? Maybe when Redman joins in, we'll get to hear more from their roots.
Electricity was abounding in anticipation of the start of the second set and Redman's arrival on stage. He kept us waiting until midway into the first song and as he walked out for my first glimpse of him, he immediately reminded me of the stature of Ben Ellman (sax player for Galactic)--slim and lanky, but Joshua is a little taller.
Joshua took his time to ease into the opener with his soft, jazz-influenced style. He's not one to dominate the show, and that could be out of respect, but his compliment was very well-received by all. Just like Ben, he blows a mean horn, which makes you double take as both are great brass masters and it comes out of such lean and lanky body frames, unlike the beefy and burly legends of old.
The first song bled into a percussion interlude that gave Andy a chance to be heard. Not often do you see percussionist in heavier genres, but Andy's kit is small and was mostly drowned out for much of the show because of this. He and Kris were getting the room dancing with their skin thumping and the lights were now active and illuminating. I was right; they were saving fuel for second set.
The interlude was a prelude to a great version of the Police tune "Walking on the Moon." Redman shined on this one as he weaved in and out of great solos. Ryan's bass was really on time and this was a great song for him to show his talents. Brendan's voice also came out of hiding as everything seemed more alive in comparison to the first set.
The more the show progressed, the richer the sound became. Joel gave us some solos and eased into the role of a keyboardist, and based on what I heard from him, he should get turned up more to get a chance for more "air time." Perhaps this was just the case this night, as I understand it may not have been a set list that was meant for him to stand out. I'll look forward to hearing the next Umphrey's show to listen for more from him.
Umphrey's McGee with Joshua Redman
As is the case with a lot of jam bands, no show is the same from one show to the next. Set lists change and so do the tempos and delivery of the music. For this reason, I will happily anticipate my next chance to check out UM so I have a basis of comparison. Hearing the experimental edginess of the band highlighted with the addition of Joshua Redman's sax playing left no doubt that these guys know how to perform. My first impression was good enough to leave me wanting much more.
Umphrey's McGee | 2.19.04 | Theater of Living Arts, PA
Set One: Andy's Last Beer, Miss Tinkle's Overture > Syncopated
Strangers, 2x2, Mail Package > Jimmy Stewart > Mail Package, Dr.
Set Two (w/Redman): All Things Ninja, Walking on the Moon > Hurt Bird
Bath > jam>Big Heart, Der Bluten Kat
Encore: Anchor Drops, Professor Wormbog
Words by: C. Bradford Craig
Images by: Jaci Downs
JamBase | Philadelphia
Go See Live Music!