Umphreys McGee / The Bridge, Rams Head Live, Baltimore, MD- 2/20
If asked to define a show with one moment what would it be? Would you use a whole set, a single song, a solo, a jam, what? At the Rams Head Live in Baltimore on a cold February night, the choices to define the show were abundant. So what would be that moment on this evening?
It could be the show stealing set by local favorite The Bridge, who if they continue to play sets like this will become the music world’s worst kept secret and immediately gain a spot on everyone’s must-see list. Starting their set to a couple of hundred of their closest fans packed tightly around the stage, they worked their way through a set that showed all facets of their repertoire; the infectious “Good Rhythm”, the bluesy “Brotha Don’t”, the beatbox jam laced with an “Aiko Aiko” tease that moved seamlessly into “Drop the Beat”, and the set closing “Jomotion” that showcased guitarist Cris Jacobs impressive skills and ended as the now-packed house roared their approval and left all those in attendance wondering, “How does one group pack so much old man soul into such a young-man band?”
Or would you choose a moment from either of Umphreys McGee’s stellar sets. Perhaps it could be the experimental first set that saw them work their way through some of the more random songs in their arsenal before wrapping things up with an “Out of Order > Glory > Prowler” to close the set. It could be the deep groove infected jam of “Walletsworth” or the thunderous rock of “JaJunk”, that answered the question, “Where do heavy metal solos go when they want to grow-up and hang out with hippies?” Even the contrasting encore of the rarity “Orfreo” delicately played by keyboardist Joel Cummins on a baby grand piano, that gave way to a hard-hitting version of “Mulche’s Odyssey” to end the night might sum up the show.
Perhaps it is not a song or set that would be the defining moment, but the personality of the band itself. Bands have long communicated on stage as they improvised through out the night using a variety of methods and styles. Jerry Garcia led with a subtle glance over his glasses or a simple nod of appreciation. Others were more obvious. Frank Zappa directing his band as if they were an orchestra or Bob Weir waving his hands above his head, counting off time for everyone to hear. Phish seemed telepathic. Umphrey’s McGee is all that and more. They have full-blown conversations on stage through a series of hand signals, head nods, and body movements. Tonight it started early in the first set with guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss facing each other, Bayliss studying Cinninger’s hands, coming up with a harmony to match. Their heads nodded in agreement as they created line after new line on stage, while bassist Ryan Stasik stood sentry between the two, guarding the groove.
But this is a tale of two bands and it needs to be defined by a moment that speaks to that. During the second set as Umphrey’s moved out of “Ocean Billy” into a gentle, dreamy jam, they were joined on stage by Kenny Liner, the mandolinist/ beatboxer for The Bridge. He joined in for a spirited beatbox solo, which turned into an adventurous vocal jam with Cummins, Bayliss and Cinninger. Just as the jam seemed to be winding down and the band was preparing to move back into “Ocean Billy,” Liner took a swig of water to wet his palate, picked the microphone back up and started again, almost catching the rest of the band off guard, who appeared to think he was done. Seasoned pros that they are they quickly fell back into place, drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag not missing a beat. As Bayliss and Cummins joined in with a look of bemused excitement on their faces, Liner moved closer to Cinninger coaxing him into a beatbox duel. They sparred back and forth with each other, bouncing lines and rhythms off of each as the rest of the band found space and began to create a whole new landscape behind them.
For a few breathtaking moments, there was a complete air of excitement and uncertainty as Liner led the band down an improvisational road that know one knew the end to. It was moment eerily reminiscent of days past when Umphrey’s was the young upstart band stealing stage time from a bigger act, a moment when they would take the reins of the song and announce their arrival with thunderous appeal, much as Liner was this evening, and in the process they produced the moment that would define the night.