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Reviews > Shows

Published: 2002/09/06
by Todd Justus

Umphrey’s McGee, Little Brother’s, Columbus, OH, 8/28

I remember walking out of Little Brother's back in June after Umphrey's
McGee’s first Columbus performance and proclaiming to no one in particular
that we had just witnessed "the future of the jam music scene." And it’s not
like I’m necessarily prone to hyperbole.

They had just played an energy-packed show to a full house in a college town
when school wasn’t even in session – two days before Bonnaroo, no less
(where Umphrey’s threw down one of the festival’s most memorable
performances in the middle of the afternoon on the opening day). So as word
spread that the boys from Chicago had scheduled another intimate Wednesday
night date with their budding Ohio fan base, my excitement was two-fold. I
felt I was in for a good show, and I would have the opportunity to truly
judge if UM was as good as I remembered, or if it was the pre-Bonnaroo
giddiness talking.

From front-and-center on the floor at Little Brother’s, Umphrey’s seemed to
hover over the audience. It’s not a big room, but something about the stage
makes bands seem…oversized. After a warm greeting, the lights slid subtly
to black and white and the pleasingly dissonant beginning of "Padgett’s
Profile" got its legs. As a capsule of music, "Padgett" is a good primer for
the UM uninitiated with its edgy groove and quirky sense of humor. Through
"Padgett" and into "Push the Pig," I continuously found myself astounded at
the ease with which they change tempos. It’s not at all beyond this band to
go from a spacey guitar fuzz jam into a tight funk groove into reggae
without even making eye contact. It would almost be unsettling if it didn’t
sound so good.

As I enjoyed the great harmony built by guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss
and Joel Cummins on the keys, I noticed the light show making the most of
its limited canvass. I think it’s important to note that on first
inspection, Umphrey’s runs like a well-oiled machine ready to hit
full-throttle. The band has played debutante on the summer festival ball
circuit, appearing and playing well at all of the heavy hitters. Their
website is solid and their on-line community is established and educated
about their music. They have crystal-clear sound (compliments of Kevin
Browning), and lighting designer Adam Budney’s afore-mentioned light show
fits the music like a glove. Surrounded with these components, an average
band would look good. A group as talented as Umphrey’s McGee, however, is
downright dangerous with these weapons in its arsenal.

Soon, the bass shifted unmistakably into the disco/trance opening of "The
Triple Wide" before morphing into "In Violation of Yes." This wonderful
couplet had a lot to offer: all six of them heading in different directions
before dropping right back into step; instrument changes that convince you
guitarist/vocalist Jake Cinninger could solo with a piece of straw wrapper
if he wanted to; and once again the realization that these guys can
literally stop on a dime balanced on its edge. It almost gets to the point
where you wonder if they’re somehow sharing the same brain. It really has to
be seen to be believed. And then you say to yourself, "My God, we’re only
four songs into the first set."

The (comparatively) mellow groove of "Ringo" followed, and lead into a
playful "Muff II: The Revenge" before the band dusted off "Nachos for Two"
(with a "Linus and Lucy" tease) to the delight of the crowd. I found it
interesting to look at this three-song block in comparison to the songs that
opened the show. The contrast in styles resoundingly proved that Umphrey’s
McGee is no one-trick pony, and the metal rock-out of the "Pay the Snucka
(Part III)" that came next added an exclamation point to the thought. Some
handy guitar work and a general downshift in "All in Time" brought
everything back down to earth, only to have "Padgett" slide back in to close
the set on a high note.

The reprieve was brief, though, and soon enough the band was back on stage
and in the midst of a dark, bluesy jam that became the impressive "2X2." The
anthemic "2X2" is the kind of song that bands build their reputations on,
and it shows depth (musically and lyrically) that the casual fan might not
expect from a typically packaged "jamband." But that’s just the point: if
you go to an Umphrey’s McGee show expecting hear, say, a cover of "Chalkdust
Torture" and other rip-offs of Trey Anastasio’s compositions, you’re going
to leave the show excited. Not because they delivered on your expectation,
but because what you got instead was so much more than that. Sure, the
mutual influences are evident, but UM brings a fresh perspective – a
generation once-removed from the artists that inspired Phish – and the
impact of 15 more years of music to be inspired by.

Little Brother’s was rocking during this particular version of "2X2." In the
few songs that followed, I spent time carefully observing each of the
individual players and their relative merits. I’ve only seen UM four times,
but the one thing that stood out to me initially and has impressed me at
each subsequent show is their powerhouse rhythm section. Ryan Stasik (bass)
and Michael Mirro (drums) are fluent players that are comfortable in a
variety of styles, and percussionist Andy Farag seems to drop in at just the
right moments to really add to the texture. Jake Cinninger, well, let’s just
say that Jake Cinninger can play with anybody, and that’s no overstatement.
Along with a certain other guitarist who joined UM later in the show, he’s
one of the two most underrated players on the scene today. On this night,
though, it was Bayliss and Cummins who showed me facets of their playing I
wasn’t aware of. In addition to the wonderful harmonies they can create
vocally, both are apt to drop in a spiraling solo or bold set of notes at
any moment.

By the time "The Haunt" had bled into "Jazz Odyssey," I was ready to put my
notepad away and dance. This was a particularly fun "Odyssey," with the band
sandwiching a great jam between Cinninger’s teasing of "Norweigian Wood." In
fact, the last thing written in my notes is "Norweigian Wood jam > insane
madness > Norweigian Wood jam." As they wound through the back end of the
second set, I was struck again by the precision they display, and how in
spite of this neither the music nor the performance itself was mechanical.
The playing is fluid and the players themselves are passionate and engaging
on stage.

As if the show hadn’t been impressive enough, everyone recognized the tall
man with the golden Les Paul that came out for the set closer. ekoostik
hookah’s Steve Sweney joined in for a raging "Der Bluten Kat," which could
only have been improved if Cinninger had been swapping licks with him.
Before you knew it, the encore of a recognizable Gershwin standard and
"Kat’s Tune" > "Hurt Bird Bath" closed the show. Though the music had
stopped, Little Brother’s was still electric in the aftershock.

I walked out into the summer night not just validated in my previous
proclamation, but convinced. Umphrey’s McGee does so many things so well
that it’s difficult to summarize why they’re so good. The individual
talents, the complex yet unpretentious songs, the never ending jams…you
can’t pick one thing. UM seems to have learned from the best things that all
of their influences had to offer and stirred them into one tremendous pot of
Midwestern chili. Get in the van, get on the bus, do whatever you need to do
to check out this band. This is what jam rock is going to sound like over
the next few years, and this is the band that has mastered the sound.

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