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Published: 2003/11/22
by Jesse Jarnow

Umphrey’s McGee, BB King’s, NYC- 11/18

NYC ROLL-TOP: Alive and Kicking in Dump City

A few days ago, I got a call from an old friend. A burst of static fuzzed
out his introduction, and he was already off and talking, so it was a good
two minutes before I figured out who it was — and, by that point, I'd
already offered him a spot to crash on my couch if he needed it (hey, he
seemed like a nice guy). As it turns out, it was a buddy from the Midwest
moe. crew that I did shows with back when I lived in Ohio. He lives in
Chicago, and is moreless on Umphrey's McGee tour these days. He was calling
from Baltimore. I think. At any rate, he was on his way up for the show. And
though I was already planning on going, and told him so, he was nonetheless
rather insistent that I check them out.

Presumably, the people who put out Dump City Gutter, the Umphrey's
McGee equivalent to the Pharmer's Almanac's beloved Tour Extra, would
agree. I was handed a copy on the way into B.B. King's — a folded
newsletter with no advertisements and a whole buncha Umphrey's content.
Without even having a chance to read it before the show, the Gutter
acted as a Playbill for the evening's events — cluing me (and, presumably,
other neophytes) into the existence of a body of Umphrey's McGee lore and
news (or at least enough inside jokes to fill a crossword puzzle). If I
didn't know pretty well already, the Dump City Gutter spelled out in
stalkerish letters the fact that Umphrey's McGee are a jamband, and not just
a jamband, but a certain kind of jamband — the kind with a deep internal
language that manifests itself in obsessive setlist rearranging, and a
closely watched geekiness. While, on some levels, that's the traditional
definition of the genre, it's starting to seem more and more old-fashioned,
with a combination of a.) more jambands on the circuit (and less time for
many to focus on any of 'em) and b.) an ongoing shift towards more
party-oriented acts (like Karl Denson's Tiny Universe and The New Deal), as
opposed to music that comes even more alive when dissected.

They're a jamband, for sure, and they're a jamband that thrives in being
unfashionable. They're from Indiana (and, per the Gutter do well on
the glittering Midwestern "dump city" circuit of Grand Rapids, Detroit,
Cleveland, and Pittsburgh). Their lineup is unapologetically Big – six guys – and hardly sleek. Nothin' minimalist and hip, like the White Stripes, nor
even large and theatrical, like the Polyphonic Spree, just bloody big.
Musically, there's none of that smarmy remove. Throughout their two sets at
B.B. King's they shredded, man. And I don't mean that in a bad way. Their
songs accelerated through seemingly endless sections of virtuosic prog-metal
composition, deftly wanked (and sent through all kinds of quasi-funky
compression boxes) by guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss. I had a
bit of a time trying to commit myself to the sheer progginess of it all.
When I did, usually by watching the band up close, it felt really good.

For folks like me, it was well impossible to tell when one song ended and
another began (when I asked my friend what the name of the "first song" was,
he detailed the abbreviated sections of several other songs that they'd
played). Except when they began a nearly note-perfect cover of "I am the
Walrus." I could tell when they started that. They nailed everything except
the off-time "chooga chooga"s in the outro, just before the "smoke pot,
smoke pot, everybody smoke pot" chant (which, growing up, I was stone sure
was "oompah, oompah, speckled-belly oompah"). And then they slid right back
into whatever it is they were doing before. Given their predilection towards
sequences of segues, it was possible to tune in at any point and be aware of
an undergridding — be it the rigorous composition of a song, the rapid
changes between sections, or even the transitions required to get from one
point to the next. If Umphrey's McGee had a fault, it's that – while each of
these moments was intentionally dramatic (maybe even overly so) – there was
rarely a sense of overarching emotional structure. It's well possible,
however (and, given my experiences listening obsessively to other bands,
even likely), that simply the experience of being a dorky fan – the
gestures that one makes by writing for the Dump City Gutter or
participating in an online discussion group – provides the kind of context
needed to decode the show's structure.

I'm not sure if my friend has gone home or not yet. He didn't need a place
to crash after all. Last I saw him, he was headed for the after-party a few
blocks over, where Cinninger was due to sit in with A440. I haven't seen his
screenname online, so I can only assume that he followed the band to their
next gig in Philadelphia, and off into the sunset, sunrise, and beyond.

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