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Published: 2009/08/10
by Mark Burnell

Umphreys McGee Live at Soundstage

Ill be honest, I just dont get Umphreys McGee. Friends whose musical tastes mirror mine have heartily recommended them, but the live shows Ive heard have left me cold. Nevertheless, they perform with a bewildering array of stylistically incongruous bands, having done double bills with everyone from Yonder Mountain String Band to the New Deal. Guitarist Brendan Bayliss is apparently writing slash-your-wrists country songs with Jeff Austin, and thats certainly enough to pique my interest, so when this DVD hit my inbox, I was genuinely looking forward to seeing it.
I still dont get it. I mean, with this showcase set of all originals, no covers and no wild freeform segues (or Jimmy Stewarts, as the band bewilderingly calls them), I finally get what Umphreys play: its prog rock, but I still dont see how they are the fastest growing jamband in the country or indeed, if this DVD is to be believed, why they have so many women in their audience. With their double guitar/double drum set up, Umphreys remind me of King Crimson circa 1975. With the stop/go song structures quiet on the verses, noisy and angular on the choruses, the borderline metal jamming parts in the middle seemingly very rehearsed, and the incomprehensible lyrics, they are every inch a facsimile of Fripps band with some hippy dippy reggae beats thrown in for good measure. There has always been a prog element to the jamband scene. Phish have always reminded me, in their more composed moments, of pre-pop charts Genesis, and Umphreys take the prog and run with it. Playing prog, which is both fluid and intensely structured, takes some major musical chops, and the Umphreys boys certainly have those in spades. Of course, the flip side to prog is songs that have a surfeit of virtuosity and a total lack of anything emotional; its spectator music that is not participatory. And prog isnt exactly known for attracting the ladies, which makes the large number of young females in this audience, who are prominently featured by the cameras, something of a mystery.
Fans of the band will naturally love this release because the sound is spectacular, the camerawork is extremely professional, and theres over two and a half hours of music, but the unconvinced will remain mystified at Umphreys McGees popularity.

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