Words by Benji Feldheim :: Images by Lisa Sharken
Umphrey's McGee :: 11.19.05 :: Irving Plaza :: New York, NY
The irony of the band's first album titles, like Local Band Does O.K. and Greatest Hits Volume III, carries more strongly than ever before as crowds across the U.S. swell to see the Midwest madness that is Umphrey's McGee. The band is a balance of technical prowess and childish pranks. Missing is the arrogance and distance from the audience usually present in bands that create elaborate compositions with many changes in key, rhythm, and time signature. Instead, they smile, kick one another onstage, and clearly get off on the growing numbers of people who clumsily figure out a way to dance to 13/8. Such would be the case on the second of two nights at New York's Irving Plaza.
Umphrey's McGee :: 11.19 :: NYC
For your humble narrator and many others, including folks from as far as Toronto, this night was the fifth in a run starting in Grand Rapids, MI, continuing to Columbus, OH, Washington D.C., and ending with a final showdown near Union Square.
Standing amid eager show goers crowding the front of the stage, I heard a familiar synth pattern. The plastic sounds, wrought with an inspiration that could only be described as '80s cheese, belonged to a movie theme. Is that the Rocky theme? With a collective look of "Where the hell will this go?," the crowd cheered as Umphrey's took the stage. Barely in place, the band launched right into the swift, high-energy "Miss Tinkle's Overture." Sounding more like the ending to an epic feat of rock grandeur than an overture, the song displays the group's strong ability to leap suddenly into high dynamics, with a keen tightness only found through much practicing. With instant changes from straight beats to triplets, all at the Irving Plaza were awake and roaring. The band settled into an eerie electronic club beat, as a bass line by Ryan Stasik would soon become rock ferocity. Brendan Bayliss scratched out a rhythm on his guitar, while Jake Cinninger applied colorful chords around the scratch line, occasionally synching up with Bayliss. Drummer Kris Myers kept the dance beat pounding, as the band hinted that the energy would rise very soon. An Umphrey's intensity rise is like hiking on a mountain with some rat devil changing the landscape at will, especially right when you get stable footing. All you know is you're going up, even if you go down, diagonal, or sideways for a few steps. During a breakdown, the conga power of Andy Farag, who is usually the reserved man in the fray, came at full force. Joel Cummins traded hits on his B-3 organ with Cinninger, as Stasik, Bayliss, and Myers built a wall around Farag's conga part. With big chords nestled between Cummins's flowing organ combinations, the bass line Stasik played to start this debauchery came back with guitars leading the way to a massive explosion. "Bottom Half" brought a necessary calming to the evening, with simple guitar and keyboard lines that brought focus to the lyrics. That is until the Bayliss/Cinninger link-up happened. The layered tones of the two guitars, one bold and punchy, the other ringing with warmth, are a signature part of any Umphrey's show. Out of nowhere, the song went dangerously close to "level eleven" rock, when Bayliss and Cummins stuck to what I guess is the chorus, while the drums and bass rocked out. To end, Cinninger tapped the song into oblivion.
Brendan Bayliss :: 11.19 :: NYC
"Kabump" offered the snaky side of the band. Snaky is this weird feel the band uses at times: a gentle, funky strut but with this sinister lining like some schmuck is getting ready to pelt you with a water balloon right when you're comfortable. "Kabump" has this jazz edge, becoming more pronounced since Myers took over on skins. After returning to the song's head, the band took a straight beat for some funk, keeping the playful feel of "Kabump" alive during a "Jimmy Stewart." Cummins has recently enjoyed making discordant undulations with his new Moog, like the line he played over Stasik's bass line during the improv section. The warm disassembled jam became "Hajimemashite." A number from the pre-Umphrey's days of Tashi Station, the song has genuine heart to it. The lyrics about befuddled thoughts poured out of Bayliss's ever-solidifying voice. People say a white guy from a Midwest suburb can't play soul. That's true if he's trying to sound like a black man from the Delta, but when he plays warm-toned rock with the downbeat on one and three, it's as real as anything.
Andy Farag :: 11.19 :: NYC
The Umphrey's cover has gone beyond nearly all guessable boundaries, but in a broad stroke it can be put into two main categories: novelty and quality. If the actual value of a cover tune is the playing of the song, more so than the fact that the band simply played a random cut, it's quality. But if the surprise is simply the random choice, the song is novelty. It's hard not to smile at some Motley Crue, especially the all-too-telling "Wildside," but it just didn't have the together punch that the other tunes did throughout the night. "Higgins" followed, starting with a dark reggae feel for the verse, before what could be called the hard-rocking B part, and then the '80s rock chorus. This newer tune then went into a fierce bridge that just built and built until it erupted with menacing rock. Cummins welcomed singer Ugochi out to the stage to lead with sultry vocals on the classic "Ain't No Sunshine." For a band with admitted self-indulgent epic rock stylings, they know how to back up a sexy voice. "2nd Self" brought the fun spirit back out to the show. Faces in a trance during "Sunshine" came back alive during the layered melody. The odd metered rise in the tune is a solid example of Umphrey's ability to throw in more complex parts to a song while still maintaining the same feel as the simple beginning. Cinninger's solo had a subtle echo that blended with the tight interlock of the bass, piano, guitar, and drums. Out of nowhere, he jacked his playing up in time for Bayliss to take over solo duties as the band climaxed right in time to end the song. A facet that separates Umphrey's from many other bands claiming to have a variety of styles is their taste for hard-ass metal. Some people call the homage to the moshing crowds "Nopener" as a novelty, but they're not even close. I dare anyone who thinks this is a joke to try playing this fast and fierce.