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Published: 2005/11/23
by Randy Ray

Umphreys McGee, Marquee Theatre, Tempe, AZ10/25

Dream Focused
As often as you’ve wandered You carried too much weight – “Anchor Drops,” Brendan Bayliss

The Marquee Theatre just won the Best Venue to See Live Music in Arizona by the local newspaper and if you check the Show Reviews over the past year, you’ll see why. The venue gets non-mainstream acts that music lovers want and bands normally produce strong shows in front of very receptive (and sonically hungry) fans. I’m fortunate and I know itone of those cats that gets to travel from West to East, North to South to catch everything from ALO to Zilla. However, there are many Arizona music fans that have to wait for the next big jam thang to stroll through the desert on their way either to L.A. or Texas. And the payoff is usually well worth the wait. This was the second trip in six months for Umphrey’s McGee to the Marquee Theatre. They had played a relaxed and mathematically exploratory show back on 5/3/05, which was covered for This month’s issue also has a feature article if you want to know what was running through the minds of the mighty jamband from the Windy City when they stopped by my current stretch of the music highway.

Brendan Bayliss, guitarist, vocalist, lyricist and driver of the Winnebago (I keed. I keed.) stood on the band’s tour bus tapping his pen on UM’s setlist for the night. The sheet of paper sat on a pizza box that had, until recently, contained his dinner for the Tempe eve. As he finished the list and sat down to conduct the next in a series of numerous locale interviews that would conclude in the hallway of a Midwestern hotel the following week, he quipped: “If the show sucks, don’t tell anyone that I wrote the setlist.” Well, credit where credit is duethe show was yet another 2005 improv revelation with the band moving through many time signatures while showcasing potent communication skills. We also got an unexpected treat as guitarist Charlie Hitchcock made his first post-Particle appearance with adrenalin rush performances in both sets.

“Great American” began the seamless first set as the momentum began softly, slowly and effortlessly until the twin guitarists, Bayliss and Jake Cinninger, ripped into the arcing main riff that got everyone just a bit closer to the stage. On the rail, I could see the two guitarists were immediately welded in a tractor beam with each other’s eyes and fingers as the song shifted into third gearbreakdown into a brief drum and percussion fill from Kris Myers and Andy Farag before bassist Ryan Stasik and keyboardist Joel Cummins redirected Bayliss and Cinninger back to the riff, a return to solo percussion, glide into a Latin tango, B&C add color, Stasik holds the anchor, Cummins hooks the ivories, riff builds momentum, band interlocks, moves forward as one and a beautiful crescendo leads into “Sociable Jimmy” and the initial Bayliss vocals for the night.

That opening slice of perfection served as an ample overture for the set as the band would continually build momentum, breakdown into separate sections, improv based on mood and tension and then, rise again effortlessly as one huge melodic six-headed beast. Cummins, especially, had an innate ability to switch gears with sublime ease without sacrificing the mood or the imagery of the sonic terrain being painted. If 5/3/05 was a complex, mathematical gem, then 10/25/05 was a dense, multi-colored canvas held together by a solid frame of seasoned musicians knowing how to listen, what hand signal to use to shift gears and precisely when to stop playing unnecessary notes. “Jazz Odyssey”the always welcome Jackson Pollock improv numbersegued into “Partyin’ Peeps” with its reggae textures and perfect harmony vocals from Cummins, Cinninger and Bayliss. Autobiographical? I would think sosmoke-filled bars and shouts from the stage and taxis and all. “Peeps” wasn’t so much a jam vehicle as an example of the band’s ability to pull off several time signature changes within a six minute stretch without sacrificing the original reggae beat or the clever lyrical interludesof course, the mid section tension-and-release guitar battle between Bayliss and Cinninger came out of nowhere and ignited the crowd before a drop right back into reggae. Jah, mon.

An extremely brief stop to the music precluded the entire set from a proverbial seguefest. We were then served an incredible display of band dynamics as “Blue Echo>“Jimmy Stewart”>Blue Echo>Walletsworth>So What?” layered one color after another over the scene, lights shot from multiple directions from the back of the stage, Bayliss and Cinninger charged forward with confidence and “Blue Echo” suddenly became the centerpiece of the set as the band toyed with how much elastic a song can have before it broke into a million kaleidoscopic fragments. Bent just enough to hit the event horizon of the theme before everything returned to another Bayliss vocal that served to rest the piece on a bedrock of familiarity. Cummins introduced a repeating motif on keys as Cinninger joked that we were just going to hear that pattern for twenty minutes. “Sounds like Pink Floyd,” he laughed while he mimicked the keys. At this point of the set, we were all so mesmerized that he probably could have gotten away with playing that brief bit of mind spaghetti. Alas, he didn’t, but that’s why the band knows how to pull back and when to push on towards the next idea, the next pattern, the next edge

As the long, floating sequence curled into the other off-the-cuff improv canvas “Jimmy Stewart” and back again to “Blue Echo”’s conclusion, I noticed that the band was constructing a set that was just one long songbands attempt this every night but Umphrey’s McGee is quite adept at turning on a dime to shake the illusion that they aren’t just moving into the next piece. I couldn’t even define segues other than the fact that one moment the band shot through a vibrant tableau with fluctuating speed before the guitars crashed over a barrier and Cummins and Stasik circled the theme with clarity. “Walletsworth” returned to its goose bump vocals from Bayliss after the mad chase through interstellar constellations that had yet to be charted and mapped. This gorgeous passage was merely yet another bit of ear candy before the haunting strands of Miles Davis knocked me over. The first “So What” since 5/28/04 cascaded out of the mists of “Walletsworth” and Bayliss put his guitar down as Charlie Hitchcock took his place.

If you’re even remotely interested in seeing something fun & exciting & happening & memorable at a show, seeing a band effortlessly peel through “So What” is chez chic. BUT to be a jam lover and hear Miles Davis played by a great band with an incredible guest musician is why someone like me goes out and sees live music whenever and wherever possible. Hitchcock locked horns with Umphrey’s and produced machine gun sounds of raw bliss. Hitchcock exited to applause and the band ended the set with a fine reading of the appropriately titled “Much Obliged.”

An unusually long set break was forgivable because the Chi town boys were backstage watching the White Sox win the World Series for the first time since pre-World War I. “The Crooked One” (with zero pun intended considering Chicago’s disastrous appearance in the 1919 World Series in which several players were convicted of throwing games in what would be called the “Black Sox Scandal”) commenced the set as Umphrey’s had the daunting task of topping the massive first set jam fest and finishing this long sentence. The title track from the band’s most recent Studio effort followed and the band took off on an intricate and precise jam mode with only one minor break for a tempo change, guitar tuning and NC-17 story to fill the interlude. “Anchor Drops” is an interesting doorway to open up into just about any sonic locale because of its loose structurecomfortably at ease with relaxed verses. The harmony vocals on this catchy tune were tight as Bayliss layered exclamation points around the chorus lines with smooth confidence.

The 55-minute sequence that would scorch the rest of the canvas featured double shots of “Nothing Fancy”the band pushing each other to the outer reaches of their framecradling a tangy and glorious slice of tension and release, “Kinky Reggae.” After “Kinky,” the band would pause for the obligatory “SOX WIN!” reference and Bayliss and Cummins offered intimate band sex secrets that a family publication like this just can’t print. Let’s just say the words “flute,” “reduction,” “chest hair” and “Speedos” only served to cement Joel Cummins’s position as the current Hot Property of Jamtopia. WellI must report these things, you know, for the common good. Speaking offor the setlist anal retentives and box score junkiesCinninger played a snippet of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” after the “SOX WIN!” UM outburst.

An experimental “Example 1” relaxed things a tad more as colors bled all over the stage until the band broke the riff down to its minimalist components. It should be noted that current Brad Pitt stand-in, Cummins, excelled on this piece as he punctuated the shadings with clever and eccentric notes. The “Nothing Fancy” escalating tempo o’ joy sandwich segued into the fifteen-minute humorous juggernaut known as “Ringo”which owes a small debt to mid-70s-era Zappa and is a complex piece that draws its own imaginative portrait with a large UM brushstroke. Charlie Hitchcock returned to anchor another monster set as this time he took over the guitar duties on stage right for Jake Cinninger. Cinninger bypassed a break and took over co-percussion duties with Andy Farag as Bayliss pushed Hitchcock into a war of dueling rhythms and ecstatic runs through heavy chords that raised the volume and roof. All of this funky madness seemed but a prelude to the encore, “Bridgeless.” As if to dispel Bayliss’s insistence that the last time they played the Marquee in May the band was sloppy, (I prefer to call that evening mathematical and patient as opposed to the usual epic UM mosaic) B&C pulled out every hard rock and heavy metal trick in the book. Bayliss jumped to monitor to amp to drum kit as he chugged out chord after chord. Cinninger joined him in the guitarist gymnastics, as his fingers were a surreal blurattacking his guitar like murder was the only solution. Stasik had a devilish grin on his face and his digits danced across the bass; the twin percussionists increased the mayhem and Cummins raced over his ivories as if the night screamed for a third set. (For a pure bit of fun and a treasure hunt, find Umphrey’s McGee lost, mythical third set’ in this month’s issue.) Alas, we didn’t get a hat trick but who needed it after nearly two sets of seamless jam adventures? Umphrey’s McGee shot through the desert like some futuristic vehicle at warp eight over numerous plateaus en route with a host of other acts to the inaugural Vegoose Festival.

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