Umphrey’s Mcgee, The Library, Oxford, Mississippi- 9/14
Chicago based sextet Umphrey's Mcgee descended on Oxford for its second Mississippi visit in as many years last Tuesday before butting heads with Ivan and retreating to Arkansas. Having just played in Nashville, and planning on hitting New Orleans, the band decided to cancel its only Louisiana show of the tour in favor of playing two nights in Arkansas, rather than become a statistic of a national disaster. I for one am glad that they chose to survive, because it would have been a shame for so much talent to be blown the wind. Originally formed in Indiana in 1998, Umphrey's Mcgee has been enjoying an exciting flurry of fan attention on its latest tour, and their explosive late night Bonnaroo appearance this summer seems to be the beginning of an adventurous plateau with higher peaks on the horizon. Fresh of the heels of their latest album release, Anchor Drops, The Umph have been leaving smoking craters of clubs, their sets' wild twisting and turning of imaginative sparks, passionate forays into the annals of recent music history and style.
The evening seemed harmless enough, even seeming to be a possible set up for disappointment, but once the music started, the crowd began to fill in, and the energy level raised incrementally higher with each measure. The first notes of "Ocean Billy" seemed like a call out to the audience, followed by a short melodic arpeggio, and a pulse of drums slowly building and drawing the listener in as if a not so far-off drum circle in a forest. The build moves into almost anthem like proportion before surrendering to a techno break beat and smooth vocals alternating with each passage. Around eight minutes into the song, they begin a choppy little jam that drops right into "Professor Wormbog", the first of two songs they would repeat from their last visit to The Library. The harmonies during the short vocal section of this light but up-tempo jazz number were vaguely reminiscent of Bel Biv Devoe. The jam back into "Ocean Billy" could have been a little smoother, but was quite enjoyable with its Santana like melody.
Contrary to the band's official website setlist, "Jazz Odyssey" came next, a solid song that features Jake Cinninger's fluid guitar playing mixed with Kris Myers (drums) and Ryan Stasik's (bass) characteristically dexterous ability in the rhythm department. Joel Cummins keyboard melodies weave in and around the groove with the power of a tree, and the beauty of a web-spinning spider. Then comes "Front Porch" a well written song featuring Brendan Bayliss' vocals that float right out front, easily understood and possibly hitting a resounding note in the listener's Psyche. Andy Farag's percussion while easy to dismiss due to the sonic wizardry of the others, provides accents and fills that make the overall sound pop and crackle with energy. "Front Porch" got a proper workout with a truly uplifting and beautiful jam carrying it about 7 minutes past the vocals and delicately landing in shaker fills and sizzling cymbals.
Just as the resonating rides came to a whisper, an electronic drumbeat invoking Depeche Mode led into "The Triple Wide," an eerie trance provoking song that could have fit right in on the Donnie Darko soundtrack with its eighties ambience. The jam built nicely in organic trance fusion fashion before twanging into dirty Drive By Truckers like guitar melodies and rollicking pitter patter drumming cow-funk. Always having fun with segues and often debuting unlikely cover songs, The Umph shifted soundscapes to the familiar chording of The Doobie Brothers' "Blackwater," an easy choice for a Mississippi room, especially one filled with potential hurricane refugees. The crowd responded promptly and the obligatory sing along brought smiles to the proud musical tricksters' faces.
To continue the humor of the moment, the sound of synth strings leads into the light funk and slight reggae of "Pay the Snucka," in which the lyrics highlight many "don't f-ck withs." A classical metal guitar solo in the vein of Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen then breaks through and leads into a Kill em All era Metallica jam that pushed many attendees to head banging highs. After the adrenaline rush had passed the band and crowd took a much-needed timeout.
After a few beers and shout outs from the band to "our namesake, the real one and only Umphrey's Mcgee," "All In Time" burst out of the speakers. A real class act and energetic set opener, this song set a high standard for the rest of the set, with thought provoking lyrics suggesting "I could tell you all about what's next/ if I could make it clear/ Or to complicate the text/ what would you hear then." A drum melee ensued, finally giving Andy Farag a chance to earn his keep. He easily kept up with Myers, as hips shook within the dance space to the rumbling and rattling cadences for nearly 180 seconds. Stasik's thunderous bass attacked and brought the song around to another verse and repeat of the chorus, before the mellow bridge brought bodies shuddering to a heady sway. Cinninger showed off his classical chops with his lightning-quick fingers. He then began interacting directly with Brendan Bayliss' ambitious riffing for a trailblazing foray into an Allman Brothers' like dual lead guitar that ended with a quote of "Minuet from String Quintet in E major, G.275," by Luigi Boccherini. Having hit a definite climax for the night, they quickly shifted moods in favor of the Ray Parker, Jr. sounding "Bright Lights," which was written by long time friend and frequent musical guest Karl Engelmann, who contributed the song to Umphrey's early this year. Painting scenes of city skylines, neon lights, and all night parties, this song has the potential to move any booty caught in its path. The hard funk groove slowly dwindled to ambient echoes that served as a launch pad for the slow winding reggae of "Last Man Swerving." Ever the musical chameleon, the band soon steered the song into its boogie-woogie bridge, which comes back around for a coda jam, complete with a return to classic metal shredding by Cinninger, until a final ambient section found Joel Cummins propelling the band headlong into what has been labeled as "Miles Beyond Jam." "I Ran" was chosen and the segue seemed effortless. This song is just sleek, with Radiohead and Tears for Fears type sensibility that benefits from strong hooks and spacey eighties distortion and keyboard wizardry.
The band must have been a little frisky by the end of this tune, because "Jimmy Stewart" reared its improvisational head at this point. For the uninitiated, "Jimmy Stewart" is the code name given to a section of cohesive group theme jamming, this time taking on a continued spacey jam, followed by a shorter drum solo, and a heavy metal little drummer boy like rapid fire syncopated guitar/drum beat that turned on a hat to the raunchy yet somehow smooth "Much Obliged." After about six minutes or so, the boys found themselves in a bluesy mood that brought the return of "You Gotta Move," a blues cover that appears on The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers Album, that hadn't been played since April 20 last year, and was dusted off in Oxford for a Lauren, who was celebrating her birthday. Next the band light heartedly bludgeoned the audience with Jamaican accents and eased into some more reggae with "Party Peeps," a song complete with beer bong references in the lyrics. Finally, they announced that they could only play one more song and chose to lead us out with "Ringo," which according to Umphreaks.com was originally an Ali Baba's Tahini song entitled "Who Knows the Score?" An attempt to classify this song would be an exercise in futility, as was most of this review. So if you really want to hear some truly interesting and technically precise musical genre morphing, give Umphrey's Mcgee a shot, but be forewarned that they are not for the musically squeamish.