Umphrey’s McGee, Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, GA 12/3
Will there ever be another Phish? Another genre- and rule-bending band to rise from college parties and bars to selling out Madison Square Garden on multi-night runs? Having made it through Phish's entire career without ever getting my card stamped "fan"—for the record, a handful of tunes made me bob my head, but the band just never rose above occasional play status in my music library—I'm not sure if I'm even qualified to say. By the time Phish was on my radar, they were already on the radio and releasing double-live albums, and there was ten years' backstory to that point. So here's what I think: maybe there could be another one, but it's gonna be hard.
I caught Umphrey's McGee much earlier in their journey, still playing theaters, bigger venues and live releases still in the future. Umphrey's McGee has been called the next Phish in a lot of places, it seems, and it seems that's what a lot of people are looking for. Umphrey's McGee has been called a rock band, which they are, as well as a jam band, which they are as well, and a prog-rock band, which they might very well be, too. They're also clearly steeped in classic rock, metal, jazz, psychedelia, and funk, in no apparent order, and they like their in-jokes, effects pedals, and teases. That's a lot of hats, but the band has the heads to wear them: keyboardist Joel Cummins, guitarist / vocalists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss, bassist Ryan Stasik, drummer Kris Myers, and percussionist Andy Farag, a crowded stage for a small place. With little background on the band, I spun the new, rather slickly packaged Anchor Drops a few times in preparation for this show, but that didn't really set me up for much of the live experience. Anchor is a record, after all, filled with the giddy energy of a young band still figuring out the extent of its abilities, but also still mannered in the way that all studio albums are.
Live, I recognized the opening "Mulche's Odyssey," the instrumentals "The Pequod" and "Robot World," and the covers of the Doobie Brothers' "Black Water" and Metallica's "And Justice For All," but that was it. The rest of the two sets was a Frankenstein's monster of guitar spirals, keyboard brushstrokes, and percussion dots and dashes, seamless in parts and beautifully messy in others. Umphrey's McGee are admirers of Phish and cohorts of moe., and those influences are obvious: jams bloomed into jams, sometimes riding off the rails and barreling into cul-de-sacs, but always moving. The band's obvious thirst for exploration and interest in quirky, shifting time signatures brought some movements precariously close to wanking, but that's the risk, and anyway, they always came safely back to earth. This is a band that isn't afraid to make death-metal handsigns or strike snarky guitar-hero and James Brown funk-god faith-healer poses on stage, or pass a wine bottle, or dress down, or toss in a lick of "Purple Haze." Jake Cinninger looks a bit tousled and mischievous, and Umphrey's McGee onstage reminded me a little of a brawl depicted in a cartoon or comic strip, a whirling cloud of dust in which an occasional arm or leg can be glimpsed. Given the band's amiable kids-having-fun approach, I didn't know whether to take the spot-on, lurching cover of "And Justice For All" (complete with appropriately guttural Hetfieldesque vocals by Myers) seriously or not; hell, I'd just seen the real thing for four times the price about a month ago. But then I realized that dilemma is really the beauty of it: you can take it however you want. Laugh out loud or bang your head or do both, it's all good.
Tapers were in attendance, people where phoning in the set list as it unfolded, and there was even a guy in front in a gorilla suit, apropos of what other than good-time weirdness, I can't say. The fact that Umphrey's McGee already has a cult seems to auger well. And the theater was bursting at the seams; the set break went on for more than an hour as the fire marshal dealt with the oversold crowd, and if you have to ask people to leave before you can continue playing because the place is too full and too many are lighting up—"switch to brownies," Bayliss advised the crowd—it's an even better sign. Not for the people who had to leave, not for the theater management, but the incident adds a few more lines to a quietly growing little legend, a little more buzz for the mill. And the next time through, the crowd will probably be even bigger and the tickets will probably go even faster.
The problem with searching for someone to fill a void is that everyone's looking, and some of the innocence is lost. The landscape is different, more crowded with potential heirs; the original came on by surprise. It's a little like going to one of those Sixth Sense-style movies, the ones with some kind of twist that every review has mentioned but promised not to spoil—you know it's there, you know it's coming, so you're looking for every little clue, and the payoff is never quite as good as you imagine.
So, back to the question: is Umphrey's McGee the next Phish? Who knows. The signs are there—a devoted culture, growing word-of-mouth, sold-out shows and strong performances—but it's a long road. So maybe the right question to ask is not will there be another band like that; maybe it should really be do we want another?
I hate to answer a question with a question, but, well, why not?