Words & Images by Trevor Pour
Umphrey's McGee :: 02.16.06 :: Higher Ground :: Burlington, VT
Jake Cinninger :: Umphrey's McGee :: 02.16
Expectations are high these days for Umphrey's McGee. After their critically lauded performance at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago on New Year's Eve, Umphrey's has been riding a wave of anticipation which has cemented them in the precarious yet advantageous position of carrying one of the main torches of the jam-rock culture. Their reputation precedes their performances, delivering the dual-edged sword of consistently sold-out performances and a sharply critical audience, but NYE wasn't the kick-off for these expectations. Not only have their festival appearances and strong tours won over thousands of "Umphreaks," but a little while back they were dubbed the successors to Phish by Rolling Stone magazine. Despite the inaccuracy and overgeneralization apparent in such a statement, pressure like that could be pretty tough for a lot of groups. The great thing about these guys is – they just don't seem to care.
Ryan Stasik :: Umphrey's McGee :: 02.16
I bore witness to this phenomenon at Higher Ground as Umphrey's McGee played to an intimately small sold-out house of around 650. They forwent an opening band and simply chose to play two sets, resulting in three hours of Umph in one night. The boys started out with a fast and heavy "Believe the Lie," making it quickly clear that their penchant for hard rock wouldn't be ignored on this night. Kris Meyers (drums) and Jake Cinninger (guitar) broke away from the other four with their speed and precision and took the audience along to a blistering apogee, stepping into the night on the right foot.
Melodic pieces "13 Days" and "In the Kitchen" followed, leading up to a brand new lyrical gem, "Morning Song," which expanded the previous horizons of Umphrey's slower side. In the spirit of "Bullhead City" or "Walletsworth," this piece showed a great deal of songwriting maturity, both in vocal ability and melody. Brendan Bayliss is a noticeably stronger vocalist now compared to a few years back, and for a first live performance, this was an impressive production. Fans will be seeing more of this selection in the future.
Stasik (UM) & Ruth Heindel :: Vermont Youth Orchestra :: 02.16
Next up, the audience was treated to another first: a quartet from the Vermont Youth Orchestra. Violinists Estlin Usher, Jacob Gevalt, and Ariel Marcy and cellist Ruth Heindel joined UM for "Great American." This instrumental experiment was perhaps more of a treat for everyone on stage than for the crowd. No one could hide the grins coming from the VYO crew or from Umphrey's. Despite what must have been an intimidating experience, Estlin, Jacob, Ariel, and Ruth held their own with some of the most popular musicians of our day. One would hope after seeing this performance that Umphrey's will seek similar collaborations in the future, even on an album track. For a band that already plays heavy metal, jazz, modern rock, electronic, and blues, classical-fusion would be a strong addition to their repertoire.
"Nemo" and an extended "JaJunk" finished off a strong first set with Andy Farag (percussion), Ryan Stasik (bass), and Joel Cummins (keys) picking up the tempo considerably and Meyers once again showing his indomitable skill on the kit.
Grippo & Bayliss :: Umphrey's McGee :: 02.16
The second set kicked off its own share of surprises. A monstrous 35-minute "Der Bluten Kat" jam was accompanied by none other than Dave "The Truth" Grippo, a Burlington saxophone legend whose guest appearances at Higher Ground are too numerous to list. Grippo took no more than ten seconds to get his bearings on stage before diving headfirst into what can only be defined as pure unadulterated rock. Meyers and Farag played off each other to build a colorful percussive backdrop while Bayliss and Grippo exchanged playful riffs and built to the long and intense climax of the evening, leaving the crowd breathless and providing us with that moment we're all familiar with - when, without realizing what we're doing or having any conscious impulses, we slowly stop bumping and nodding and tapping our feet, and find ourselves just watching, listening, and grinning from ear to ear. That moment of this is why I'm here.
Cinninger & Hartswick :: Umphrey's McGee :: 02.16
Bringing the crowd back to earth from the Grippo jam, Umph slowed things down with the sixth guest of the evening, Jennifer Hartswick. Hartswick, another Burlington favorite (and a fellow member of Trey Anastasio's original horn section with Grippo), performed the first live "Bullhead City" since August 2004. Her soulful voice and soft lyrics were no disappointment and proved the versatility of the Umphrey's McGee sound. Hartswick hooked the crowd in a moment, which is no small triumph following the high-energy Grippo.
Cinninger & Stasik :: Umphrey's McGee :: 02.16
Following "Bullhead," Umph turned the volume back up with the King Crimson cover "Red," then "Partyin' Peeps," "Push the Pig," and "All in Time." The end of the show dragged a bit with some moments of uninspired jamming, and the calm reflected in the crowd. Umph never lost their energy, but there was definitely a disconnect somewhere between the stage and the floor. They had a strong first set and kicked off the second set with an excess of energy and volume, but their last three songs left the audience noticeably low. After such a killer guest list and strong playing, the last few pieces just didn't fit as well. The last couple songs of the night, just like the last few pages of a book or the last line of an article, tend to stick with the listener just a bit more. So after a relatively modest call for an encore, Umph (apparently aware of their lull in the second set) decided to leave us with a reminder of how good the show really was. The trance-jam hit "Robot World" > "Norwegian Wood" finished things off in true form with some smooth Benevento/Russo Duo-styled counterpoint between Meyers and Cummins.
Expectations? Met and exceeded.
Umphrey's attitude so far has shown them to be almost oddly comfortable with their success, and this show was no exception. They act like they're still college kids playing at the local bar, with a larger-than-expected crowd driving them to play with a little extra heart. Thank goodness we've got bands like Umphrey's McGee. They're having fun, they're working hard to entertain, and they aren't afraid to experiment with their sound. This is what the progressive music community wants to see, and perhaps more importantly, needs in order to survive.
I: Believe the Lie, 13 Days, In the Kitchen, Morning Song, Great American, Nemo, JaJunk
II: Der Bluten Kat > Bullhead City, Red, Partyin' Peeps, Push the Pig, All In Time
Encore: Robot World > Norwegian Wood
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