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Published: 2004/02/26
by Jesse Jarnow

Umphrey’s McGee, Bowery Ballroom, NYC- 2/20

NYC ROLL-TOP: Umph Conquers All

Like the last time Umphrey's McGee played New York, I had a hard time
imagining what it must be like to get into them, to really get into
them and start trading live shows, exploring their back catalogue, following
them around the country, and whatnot. In books like Stephen Pinker's The
Language Instinct, linguists make a big deal about individuals learning
different aspects of language at different ages, relatively tiny windows of
time during which they are capable of grasping New Things and instinctively
do so. From my own experience, the same window might be said to exist for
jambands – both the process of listening to one (as a fan) and creating one
(as a musician) – somewhere in that vaunted 18-35 demographic when one is
ready and willing invest shitloads of time into something that might
impress chicks (or dudes). Yes, folks, it turns out that jambands
(and folks' interest in them) could very well be part of the evolutionary
progression in the late 20th/early 21st century. (After 35, who knows?
Check for details.) Not that I'm beyond (or above) that
demographic myself, I'm just sayin' it's a skill one can acquire willfully
at a certain age, and can choose to apply after that.

Umphrey's McGee's sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom made a lot of sense
to me on that level. I couldn't always tell where multi-sectioned songs like
"Nothing Too Fancy" were beginning or ending, or where the jams were, but I
could tell when things were happening. Plenty of jamband don't actually jam,
choosing instead to solo over endless vamps, but Umphrey's McGee are an
anomaly in this day and age because there wasn't a lot of vamping either.
Throughout the first set, there were tightly composed sections that spun
through tensely wound prog workouts, and tons of places where the musicians
glanced around the stage, making eye contact, and looking for all the
world as if they were improvising, but not really sounding like it. Every
time that it appeared that the band was about to finally let loose with the
release that comes with jamming, they'd drop into another locked-in
two-guitar module. But I knew, more or less, when to cheer.

Like I said, I can't fathom getting into Umphrey's McGee right now. I'm not
sure if I have the energy. There's just too much. And it comes all at once.
Instead of being clued in by the little fragments I might piece together
from the kids down the hall who've got a few discs and know fragments of the
lore, I'm confronted by, where I can download no less than 300
Umph shows in their entirety. ( taunts the first time
visitor by being modest in the same way as Mount Everest.) The mystery of
Umphrey's McGee is not in their scarcity, but in their sheer volume. Despite
all this, and the fact that I really do enjoy Umphrey's McGee when I listen
to them, I'm not too motivated to go wading into their particular waters,
precisely because it doesn't seem like there's anything new that I
have to understand in order to get into them. It's as if Phish was Latin and
Umphrey's McGee was one of the Romance languages that flowered in its wake.
It is the product of a distinct culture (the Midwest as opposed to New
England) with its own character, but hard to enjoy once one has hung around
the center of the Empire for long enough.

Joshua Redman, on the other hand, doesn't have to worry about that. As a heavyweight modern bop saxophonist, he's brand new at this, never having played with Phish or collaborated with any other jamband. I'm not sure how he ended up playing with Umphrey's McGee – as he did during the second set of each show of the northeast run which the Bowery show was a part of – but it seems like a partial shot in the dark. In a way, it makes more sense – or is at least more exciting – than if Redman had decided to hook up with The Slip or the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey or one of the groups with far more serious jazz chops than Umphrey's, who tend towards hyperactive dorkdom, as opposed to high-status cool. But, more importantly, Umphrey's McGee are an unabashed jamband (where JFJO, for example, can come off in a jazz room without looking the least bit out of place) and one of the most committed ones at that, which can be viscerally exciting if one has never interacted with that language before — just as, presumably, Redman hasn't. As such, there was a pure energy in seeing him blowing over the sort of rhythmically stiff changes filled with weird left turns that Umphrey's trade in. Redman was ridiculously fluid, his saxophone melting over, around, and through the unswinging cracks in Umphrey's grooves. It was exciting. Umphrey's McGee rarely play with abandon. Their music certainly becomes more alive in retrospect, when cut up and analyzed, but there are rarely screaming climaxes that don't seem entirely preconceived. Precisely because so much is, well, fancy, everything also seems like a trick. Having Redman along for the ride restored some of the surprise — such as the soaring cover of Pink Floyd's "Shine On Your Crazy Diamond" that turned up about halfway through the second set. It was, perhaps, a predictable cover, but the fact that Umphrey's were running through it with somebody who likely didn't grow up obsessively listening to Wish You Were Here somehow reinvested it with the large-scale melancholy that Waters and Gilmour and company intended. Good for Umphrey's McGee. They deserved to sell out the Bowery Ballroom (or anywhere else they played), and did. Unlike Phish, they are still somewhere near their original conception for their music, undiluted by the tinkering of age and progression. It is a good time to see them, not because you can say you saw them when, but because you can say you saw them at all.

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