Umphrey’s McGee, The Cabooze, Minneapolis, MN- 2/1
Umphrey's McGee has a certain swagger. Not a swagger based on raw conceit, but founded on unyielding confidence. The members of Umphrey's McGee plowed through sets of music Saturday at the Cabooze in Minneapolis that flaunted a dedication to their style and mission. These guys trust fully in what they're doing, leaving behind any semblance of doubt or equivocation. The audience seems to have noticed. A confident sextet indeed, in full control of their facilities, Umphrey's possesses an abandon of the conventions that normally sways bands to the side of pandering to fans' live-listening predispositions and for giving neatly constructed resolutions in the unfolding presentation of songs. Not so with Umphrey's McGee where expectations are trumped by wisely crafted idiosyncrasies.
Grossly understated, Umphrey's McGee is talented group. The two guitar players present great skill, the lead player Jake Cinninger in particular boasts an enviable wealth of talent. Vastly unique, Cinninger navigates smoothly between styles of interpretation ranging from metal to bluegrass, and does so, at times, within the context of the same song. And he plays FAST. Watching his hands move across the fret board with cunning speed was entertainment enough, but fast finger work alone doesn’t always translate into a thought prodding solo or lead line. The majority of his notes were gone before they had even an instant to hang in retrospect, thus replacing subtly with brute force. This, however, was a minor problem given the consistency of how the notes were played over the course of the evening. That is to say, you just became used to it. One song that featured roomier, less compressed group playing was "Bright Lights, Big City," a tune bemoaning or, depending on perspective, celebrating life in a metropolis. A synthetic piano line reminiscent of the Talking Heads "This Must Be The Place (Na Melody)" kept the supporting improvisation light in timbre. Following a playful jam the music was suddenly pinched off for the ending of the song at a point where it could have extended into further reaches of creativity.
At certain points throughout the show expectations were drawn out for a climactic release of tension. Interestingly though, the distention worked up by the group remained comfortably taut. Fans – through repeated exposure – have trained their ears and senses to listen closely for the moments when all the hard work put into a theme erupts into a flooding restatement of the movement which lead to the point of dismemberment. On Saturday Umphrey's McGee seemed to ignore that clichinstead finding satisfaction in laying down in a tide of fluidly meandering time suspension for extended melodic and rhythmic interplay. To be sure, this was an engaging tactic for the audience and, not the least, for the band as they delighted in locking into grooves that didn't worry about meeting an agreed upon convention or the need to find a degree of resolution. A drawback to this method though, was that many of the songs stayed in the same gear, and while there were tempo varieties, the whole performance found little separation from song to song. The element of tension and release was not terribly missed as the band concentrated more on creating big spaces to put a large quantity of sound.
The notion of power and the grandiose indulgence of glam rock were also ample in expression. Power chords popped up during many of the jams and textured layering of guitars over guitars and bass over drums – all swaying to the same rhythm – produced an amazing density of sound. Umphrey's McGee was at their best and most convincing when they hit upon pockets of sound that overwhelmed with a sense of power. "Last Man Swerving" paired a heavily loping power chord jam, highlighted by a surging charge of notes from Cinninger. The pairing was a template of glam rock celebration: Dominant masculinity tempered by effeminate melodic expressions. Not a hint of irony or jest could be detected, making the occurrence all the more insightful. This band has a sense of humor and exudes a manner of style that strikes a fine balance between having a whole lot of fun and remaining seriously focused on what they're doing. Frustratingly, a shortcoming of this display of force was the uneven mix of the instruments: both guitars remained relatively low compared to the other instruments. Moments when the guitar should have commanded full attention failed to reach the decibel level required of such imperious movement in a song. (Oddly the sound level remained comfortably constant the whole evening, an anomaly for the Cabooze).
The swagger of Umphrey's McGee is apparently winning over fans. Near the end of the second set the music abruptly stopped, and in mutual salute, both fans (a scattered, small minority) and band boldly raised fists in a gesture of mock conquest. And as people are naturally attracted to entities that embolden themselves for spectacle, many more fists are sure to sprout at Umphrey's McGee shows over distance and time.