Words by: Scott Bernstein
Umphrey’s McGee :: 1.17.14 :: Beacon Theatre :: New York, NY
This weekend Chicago’s Umphrey’s McGee kicks off what should be an important year in their history with a pair of shows at the historic Beacon Theatre in New York City. Last night the band impressed by showing off their rare mix of technical proficiency and earnest songwriting at the first of two Beacon performances.
For their first show of the new year, UM looked forward by starting off with the debut of a new intro. A recording of the instrumental was piped through the venue’s soundsystem while the members of the band took the stage. Eventually the track was faded out as the sextet picked up the as-of-yet unnamed tune live. With no notice and seemingly no visual cues, the group dropped right into their original “Bridgeless.” Nearly 10 years to the day after the song was debuted, Umphrey’s has opened up the intricately composed rocker into a full-on jam vehicle. It was the first improv-heavy tune on a night filled with them and by the end of the evening stood out as one of many highlights from the show.
It’s tough to write about an Umphrey’s performance without discussing the light work of Jefferson Waful. Throughout the night he dropped many audience member’s jaws with brilliant looks and imagery. Waful’s designs are the perfect backdrop for the genre-bending band’s music, especially at a venue like the Beacon which provides Jefferson with an ideal canvas to paint on.
“Tight” is a word you’ll hear often when talking about Umphrey’s McGee and as the years have gone on the sextet has become even tighter as displayed by the “turn on a dime” transitions they laid down at the Beacon such as when they moved from the “Bridgeless” jam directly into old school original “Slacker.” The classic thrived last night thanks in part to Brendan Bayliss’s anthemic and energetic solo. UM has spent nearly a year putting together their next studio album, which is said to focus on a “heavier rock vein” than previous releases. While a tracklist for the soon-to-released LP has not been announced, after Friday night’s outstanding take on “No Diablo,” a song Brendan Bayliss wrote for UM guitarist Jake Cinninger’s son Townes, it seems to be a tune that could thrive in the studio environment. Cinninger’s wife gave birth to another child last week and, thankfully for UM fans, urged her husband to still head to NYC for the gigs. Bayliss told the crowd about the Cinninger’s new baby leading to huge cheers before the guitarist fittingly kicked off “No Diablo,” just the eighth performance of the tune. UM concluded the set by showing off the diversity of their original material in moving from the hard-edged “Sociable Jimmy” to the ethereal “Out Of Order” to the proggy “Mulche’s Odyssey.”
The second set showed off the more danceable side of UM’s music, especially during a masterful take on “The Triple Wide.” After providing a full on dance party for the NYC faithful, the band toyed with the tempo of the original, finishing the song with an intriguing half-speed exploration of “The Triple Wide” theme. Earlier in the set, Umphrey’s opened with “Bad Friday,” an original they debuted on New Year’s Eve in Denver. The second version of “Bad Friday” was opened up more than the debut. “Dump City” had a standout year in 2013 and the first take on the song in 2014 saw UM pick up where they left off in ’13 with a few beautifully weird jams. Cinninger’s “Ringo” also included a pair of extremely different improvisations before the band landed on the “Slim Knows The Score” lyric that marks the end of the tune. Another fairly new song that has been in heavy rotation for the last few years of UM’s touring has been “Puppet String.” The day’s second version of the tune (Umphrey’s performed “Puppet String” in the afternoon during their visit to the SiriusXM Studios), saw the Chicagoans quickly move away from the main theme into a funky jam. Slowly but surely Umphrey’s worked from the hard-nosed funk into a more blissful jam space out of which the gorgeous UM classic “Hajimemashite” emerged. “Haji” gave Cinninger a chance to show off the speed and precision that are the hallmarks of his sound before the peak faded back into “Puppet String.”
Throughout their first two sets at the Beacon Umphrey’s only played originals. Perhaps that’s why the crowd went absolutely ape-shit when the band came back for their encore with The Clash’s “Rock The Casbah.” It seemed as if most had a connection with The Clash’s biggest hit as the balcony and loge furiously shook up-and-down in a way that was almost scary. Cinninger has become more confident and demonstrative over the years and accentuated his vocal delivery of “Rock The Casbah” with hand signals. On a night in which Umphrey’s continually demonstrated the diversity of their repertoire and improvisations, “The Floor” was a fitting way to end the show. “The Floor” was all about Bayliss’s energetic vocals as he emptied the tank by screaming the lyrics. We’ll soon see what UM has in store for Night Two as they return to the Beacon tonight to perform before a capacity crowd.
Photos by Scott Harris::
Set 1: new intro > Bridgeless > Slacker, Get In The Van, No Diablo, Sociable Jimmy, Out Of Order > Mulche’s Odyssey
Set 2: Bad Friday, Dump City, Ringo, The Triple Wide > Bridgeless, Puppet String -> Hajimemashite > Puppet String
Encore: Rock the Casbah > Drums > The Floor
 debut, original
 with Jake on percussion
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