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Published: 2005/05/15
by Randy Ray

Umphrey’s McGee, Marquee Theatre, Tempe, AZ 5/3

I hadn't seen Umphrey's McGee since they opened for Phil Lesh and Friends three months ago in San Francisco. That's like a year in the jamband scene. Lot of changes. In that space of time, their sound has become more full, mature and, if possible, a bit complex. UM had played an incendiary but brief 70-minute set as the Lesh opener; however, they had to rein in their more elaborate arrangements. Mathematics, you see.

Such is the life of a headliner that time and space are much more malleable; freedom's just another word to add to the improv arsenal. At the Marquee Theatre in Tempe, where STS9 had recently played a powerful show, UM opened up the pipes on an agile reading of "Dump City." The mood coalesced into visual dreamland with "August>Jazz Odyssey>August" and "Jimmy Stewart." Jams would lift off and move into varying directions and halt, glance down into interior canyons, float, land, rise up and take off again. UM never lost control of the image being formed while in communal flight. This 23 minute sequence was an early highlight from a show that demands repeated listenings.

"Jazz Odyssey" was used once in the First Set and three times in the Second Set beginning a jam, wedging itself between a series of songs to add segue flavor and splitting up a song just like it had done with the opening "August." Confused? Don't be. The piece was used as well in sound mosaic placement as it appeared on paper.

"All Things Ninja" was played because the Arizona "Sun Devils like this type of music." Or so we were told. No lie. Joel Cummins was excellent on key shadings while Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger continued their evolution as one of the best guitar duos on the scene. Ryan Stasik stepped out for a brief but funky bass solo on "Ninja" before Bayliss and Cinninger whipped the band back up to a punk jazz metal zone. Drummer Kris Myers and Andy Farag on percussion chimed in with solos highlighting the subtle African pop phrasings that have crept into the UM sound lately. Guitar riffs dueled with the twin pounders as the pace escalated again onto its twisting coda.

A brief interlude of more le grande weirdness: "I Am the Walrus."

Umphrey's McGee almost made the Beatles' mindbender sound simplistic after the previous 45 minutes. Bayliss paralleled Liam Gallagher on this one and that's a compliment. Perfect. It is hard to believe they recreated this entire circus ride on stage. Drums wanted to kick out the jams. Keys played a little Emerson, Lake & Palmer by way of Page McConnell. Guitars imploded, opened, exploded, rained down into the laidback "Uncle Wally." How'd they do that? Great closer with some Yes-like guitar phrasing from Bayliss and Cinninger. Complex and witty. Dark and playful. NICE vocal harmonies. Snapshot of UM.

Set ended.

Mid-set in one of the most freakishly synchronistic aspects of the jamband scene, I ran into an old friend of a New York writer I know that also covers music (let's just say he's Shaq to my ball boy routine). Arizona is no longer just another desert oasis, eh? We spoke of Biscuits and moe. and Phish and the days of '93-'95 like two old war veterans. However, we both agreed Umphrey's McGee is one of many bands that continue to carry on the best of what music is happening today. Dreams don't die; they just move into new areas, that's all. To prove that point, UM won a Best Song of the Year Jammy Award for "In the Kitchen" just a few days prior to this gig.

"Jazz Odyssey" opened up the Second Set but after a brief two minutes the sudden burst into the 26 minute "Der Bluten Kat" raised my eyebrows even further. UM coaxed everything it had out of this set piece by highlighting the changes within passages. The entire band built bonsai tree time delays between dramatic solos and tempo edits. Bayliss and Cinninger would fly off into the atmosphere with huge notes and then quickly snap the sound back not one iota off the mark.

Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsys' "Power of Soul" led into "Jazz Odyssey" and opened the doorway into pure improv heaven. Cummins throughout continued to push and guide while the percussionists came in-and-out of notes at will. Bayliss and Cinninger engineered undercurrents bouncing odd sparks off each other. Umphrey's pacing was superb as the improv allowed for melodic breakdown and ease of movement between various thematic detours. Space exploration for six elastic musicians.

"The Bottom Half>Jazz Odyssey>The Bottom Half" finished the fourth sequence of The Night of Jazz Odyssey Segue Madness. I was through trying to assimilate information so I bounced around, letting every colorful note transport me into the Great Unknown.

Bob Dylan once said that his music was all about "mathematics." You could listen to UM to see a different slant on that quote. The band writes out very complex formulas on their sonic blackboards but the shapes somehow move around the two-dimensional space without ever losing sight of the end result could this really happen? Could we get there from here? How do we do it? Will it be interesting? Entertaining? Challenging? Fascinating questions that deserve some form of answer from time-to-time. This show has possible answers to all of those questions.


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