Live Review: Umphrey’s McGee at NYC’s Brooklyn Bowl (9/7-8)


Umphrey’s McGee threw down in New York City this week in anticipation of their first new studio album in two years, Death By Stereo, hitting stores next week. Their time in the Big Apple included four straight nights at Brooklyn Bowl, plus a special interactive S2 event Thursday afternoon and an in-store appearance at the SoHo Apple Store Friday afternoon. Consequence of Sound brings you this review of the Wednesday show and the Thursday S2 event.

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

umphreys nyc 1 Live Review: Umphreys McGee at NYCs Brooklyn Bowl (9/7 8)

On any given night, you could end up seeing any one of a number of different Umphrey’s McGees. Some nights, it’s a full-on electronic disco dance party. Some nights, it’s a metal band (albeit one that jams quite a bit). Some nights, it’s a band that seems to have musical ADHD, abruptly jolting their audience from style to style as they annihilate their staggeringly large catalog of originals and covers. And some nights, it’s a band that abandons every good improvisational idea just as it gets going, like a case of musical blue balls.

I’ve rarely been as satisfied with an Umphrey’s McGee show as the one I saw Wednesday night.

Granted, this is not the same band that I last saw in 2006. In the last five years, Umphrey’s has only gotten tighter, more electronic, more dynamic, and better at their absurdly unique system of jamming, in which entire instrumental “verses” are improvised on the spot and turned into glorious, complete-sounding compositions. Most importantly, Umphrey’s has shed the few growing pains they had in the early 2000s and are now able to produce high-quality, often transcendent shows on a consistent basis. Their fervent fanbase is all too happy to remind you of just how good their band is: Multiple “Umph Melts Face” t-shirts were spotted in the venue.

umphreys nyc 2 Live Review: Umphreys McGee at NYCs Brooklyn Bowl (9/7 8)

For a band who is known for their guitar wizardry and has covered Slayer, I was equally surprised and impressed at their ability to embrace a slick, groove based improvisation, where shredder licks take a back seat to thoughtful and intricate short melodies, and a solid pocket of drums, synths, and bass hold everything down in a funky, neo-disco foundation. It was never more apparent than during “Wappy Sprayberry”, a supremely patient dancefest that served as the highlight of the first set. Alternating between sections of repetitive disco riffs and a bluesier rock song with vocals, Umphrey’s showed that they don’t have to resort to dissonant melodies (although they do plenty of that) or disorienting metrical tricks (ditto). They’ve managed to integrate the prog rock aesthetic into something that is accessible for anyone who likes to dance, to rock out, to headbang, or to chill out, something their ’70s forebears couldn’t necessarily claim.

umphreys nyc 9 Live Review: Umphreys McGee at NYCs Brooklyn Bowl (9/7 8)Yet at their core, Umphrey’s will always be the jam band with arguably the most progressive rock influence. The in-your-face compositional complexity of “Andy’s Last Beer”, the odd melodies and rhythms surrounding a chunky rock riff in “JaJunk”, or the intricate “Plunger” were all sure to please the most discerning Yes or ELP fan (not to mention the brief tease of Yes’s “Roundabout”). Their inherent proggyness has found new expression in a variety of styles, such as the fast and trancey “Cemetary Walk II”, a techno groove in 7/8 time that got the second set started with a massive dance party. Or the newer song “Forks”, featuring a synthesizer sequencer and equal parts pyrotechnic guitar and psychedelic funk.

Umphrey’s has a soft spot for ’80s covers, and while we didn’t get to hear Toto’s “Africa” or Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” (both past offenders), the band took a gorgeous instrumental run through Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and a spirited version of the late Beatles rocker “I’ve Got a Feeling”. They satisfied their ’80s kicks with a debut performance of “Miami Virtue” from their new album, a song with a four-on-the-floor new wave beat and heavily distorted guitars subbing for synth lines. Although it was of album version length, the song shows considerable promise to grow into a jamming monster.

Regardless of whatever else the term connotes, Umphrey’s is a jamband, and a damn good one at that. The atypical, reggae-flavored jam during “Resolution” was a highlight in this regard, with dual lead guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss settling into an interlocking, polyphonic groove over Ryan Stasik’s fluid, melodic bass lines. A totally different kind of psychedelic dub jam emerged on “Cemetery Walk II”, with slow, throbbing piano riffs that led back into that familiar seven-beat disco. While their improvisational abilities were on full display Wednesday night, Thursday’s special performance would show how these six guys stand out from every other jamband around.

Set I:
Wife Soup
Sociable Jimmy
Go To Hell
Wappy Sprayberry
I’ve Got a Feeling
Cemetery Walk I
Set II:
Cemetery Walk II, Resolution*
Hajimemashite, Miami Virtue**
Andy’s Last Beer
I’m on Fire
Encore #1:
The Fussy Dutchman
Waiting Room
Encore #2:
The Song Remains The Same
*w/ Roundabout (Yes) teases
**original debut

 Thursday, September 8th, 2011

umphreys s2 nyc 6 Live Review: Umphreys McGee at NYCs Brooklyn Bowl (9/7 8)

Ten years ago to the day, Umphrey’s McGee starting playing improvisational exercises in the ballroom of a hotel where a friend was getting married. The room was called the “Jimmy Stewart Ballroom”, and so they began to call these completely free jams “Jimmy Stewarts”. Two years ago, the band took it up a notch, creating a highly sought-out, limited attendance event where fans, through the magic of text messaging, could send ideas to the band, who would adjust their “Stewart” jam to accommodate the verbal cue. They called this an S2 Stew Art event, and it was only fitting that on the tenth anniversary of their first drunken exploration of this idea, they would hold an S2 at Brooklyn Bowl.

With only about 50 die hard fans allowed in, the band took an incredibly laid-back and friendly approach with their audience. Leaving the stylistic direction of the music entirely up to the fans is an impressive feat, one that requires not only confidence in the band’s improvisational abilities but a selflessness to let go of musical control. The band played three sets of around 20 minutes each, based entirely on phrases appearing projected on the wall next to them. Synthesized washes of sound flooded out from keyboardist Joel Cummings’ Moog synth and soon sped up into a nasty house jam in response to the first two phrase cues: “Moogasaurus Rex” and “Dark and EVIL Dance Party”. “Industrial jam” saw the band do their best Neubauten impression, with drummer Kris Myers flying around his drum kit and percussionist Andy Farag finding anything metal to hit amongst his arsenal of sound. However, the final few cues seemed too close to the sort of thing that Umphrey’s does anyway on any given night, such as “soaring uplifting reprise” or “disco trance.”

umphreys s2 nyc 7 Live Review: Umphreys McGee at NYCs Brooklyn Bowl (9/7 8)

The second jamming segment was the best of the three, striking the perfect balance between the comfortable and familiar. To start it off, the band created washes of attack-less guitar and waves of color for “Brian Eno ambient”, showing a brilliant understanding of a Music for Airports-style drone. Eventually, they added drum fills that grew into a hard-edged beat, transforming Eno into Umphrey’s. The serene soundworld perfectly segued into funkytown for “slap that bass,” on top of which a “dueling guitar ragefest” ensued. When the next cue read “ZAPPAAAAAA!!!!!,” the band instantly turned on a dime into “Willie the Pimp,” the bluesy Hot Rats track, with Cinninger taking on the snarling vocal duties.

In many ways, the S2 is reminiscent of the directed improvisational experiments of downtown composer and saxophonist John Zorn, albeit more jamband than free jazz. Like Zorn, Umphrey’s imbued their miniature sets with a fair bit of humor. Zorn called his guided improvisations “game pieces,” and make no mistake about it, S2 is definitely a game. Which isn’t to say that it’s a joke or that the band doesn’t take it seriously. With fans as devoted and critical as theirs, Umphrey’s has to show up big time for something like this, but the added investment clearly yields an added payoff. Sublime moments such as a heavy metal take on their normally serene anthem “Glory”, complete with early Megadeth speed drumming and strumming, or the sublime segment “melodic drum n bass,” with Myers laying down a blistering breakbeat while Stasik carved out a fluid, circular line in the highest register of his bass, clearly showed their willingness to put it all out there.

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But they were still able to act like Midwestern goofballs, especially drummer Kris Myers,  who offered some nearly perfect DeNiro impersonations in response to “Myers does Goodfellas” (complete with “Layla” outro on piano and slide guitar), and then obliging a fan who texted “trade instruments” by picking up a guitar and doing his best (or worst) Jake Cinninger impression.

Above all, the S2 event, Wednesday’s show– and indeed this entire New York run– showed not only the musical prowess of Umphrey’s McGee but their connection to and genuine appreciation of their fans. During a Q&A session following the S2 sets, the band was asked about their new contract with ATO Records. Bayliss replied that it might allow them to reach new people who wouldn’t have the opportunity to hear them otherwise, or in other words, non-jamband fans. With their attention to musical detail, their playful but serious attitude, their highly danceable grooves, and the occasional “seeing God” apotheosis, Umphrey’s McGee seems ready to add even more appreciative fans.

Set I:
Moogasaurus Rex
Dark and EVIL Dance Party
Industrial Jam
Soaring Uplifting Reprise
Heavy Metal Uplifting Rock
Disco Trance
Set II:
Brian Eno Ambient
Slap That Bass
Dueling Guitar Ragefest
Melodic Drum n Bass
Myers Does Goodfellas
Heavy Metal Glory
Trade Instruments
Set III:
Funky Porn Groove
The Honeymoon Suite (Sex on the Beach)
Get Floydy Weird Jam
Percussion Rage
Dirrrty Organ
Jake’s Favorite Song
Favorite Pedal
Robotic Facemelt

Gallery by Jake Cohen

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