Umphrey’s McGee, Barrymore Theatre, Madison, WI- 11/2-3Eagles Ballroom, Milwaukee, WI- 11/4
Get out of the way. Seriously. Move. Umphrey’s McGee is on the warpath and they are leaving hippies for dead, in a good way, actually. After seeing the band so many times, what holds up over time is their ability to adapt and change. Whereas single songs once dominated sets, this has given way to sets built as a cohesive hour-long free-for-all. Structured setlists are gone while improvisation still remains on point and unified.
The first night at the Barrymore Theater opened with a short bass driven “Jazz Odyssey” before “Higgins.” A long segue pulled “Hurt Bird Bath” out of “Higgins.” The first section of “HBB” was chaotic as usual, only to be followed by guitarist Brendan Bayliss’ tranquil guitar lines intertwining in “Sweetness.” Chicago’s finest running back (Walter Payton, the song’s namesake) soon handed off to Britain’s Fab Four as “Baby You’re A Rich Man” came next. A dark little jam out of “Baby You’re A Rich Man” lent itself perfectly to an energy building segue into the last section of “HBB.” Utilizing segues not only to get from song to song, but also to build energy left the first stoppage of the show at nearly 50 minutes. A short “Nemo” and “The Bottom Half” with an exploratory middle section ended the set at about 65 minutes.
The second set was the best of the weekend run. Spouting knowledge from fortune cookies thrown onstage, guitarist Jake Cinninger and Bayliss started in on “Much Obliged.” The song was fairly short but the riff sped up towards the end and provided a segue so smooth into “The Fuzz” that you had to check twice to make sure it happened. Working off the relatively new “rock version” of “Fuzz” the last few notes went right into “Tribute To The Spinal Shaft.” Bassist Ryan Stasik and keyboardist Joel Cummins interacted well as they played off each other to drive the first half of “Tribute.” A lyrical “Jimmy Stewart” cut “Tribute” down the middle with lyrics that mirrored the dark riff accented with haunting ripple notes from Cinninger. The “Stewart” also had Cinninger join Bayliss on improv lyrics, that, a few days after Halloween, were themed around cemetery plots. The lyrical “Jimmy Stewart” funneled out into Bayliss’ solo that finished the second half of “Tribute.”
Next was the highlight of the entire run, and one of the best improvisations I have ever heard from Umphrey’s McGee. Cummins started loosely playing the melody of The Beastie Boys’ “Groove Holmes” and soon Cinninger was over on keys with him. When Cinninger returned to guitar it was off to the races during the ensuing “Jimmy Stewart.” The six minutes or so out of “Groove Holmes” sent the Barrymore into a frenzy, as Cinninger could do no wrong. He continued to find notes as the jam quickly propelled behind him. Cinninger patiently waited before finally attacking and squeezing the jam beautifully. The rest of the band built around him at a seething pace as drummer Kris Myers set the tempo for the “Stewart” with Stasik’s bassline interlocked, bouncing off Myers fills. Quietly Bayliss filled in a melody under Cinninger’s solo and what germinated during these six minutes was a triumphant piece of musical bliss.
After they regrouped, “Morning Song” came next for a very appropriate slow down to the set. A “Jimmy Stewart” stretched “Morning Song” after the first two verses and again gave Cummins a chance to shine. With the absence of Myers’ e-drums Cinninger filled the void beat boxing where the e-drums usually kick in to signal into the third verse. Bayliss had found his vocal chops again, as it was evident he had benefited from some much-needed time off. His voice carried beautifully on the final notes of “Morning Song” as he utilized his full vocal range.
To finish things off with a bang “Mulche’s Odyssey” seemed the clear choice to finish out the show with great crowd energy. Bayliss had started thanking the crowd, but slowly riffs of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” crept out and kept the crowd screaming as a quick version ended the set.
For an encore “Thin Air” fit the show perfectly with its highs and lows. Cinninger’s slide guitar was a nice added touch and with the “Hall of The Mountain King” ending, night one was in the books.
The weekend provided perfect peaks and valleys as the band played off the crowd without any real lulls, only properly slowed portions of a set. Sets were peaked beautifully (Groove Holmes>Jimmy Stewart) and then slowed down while maintaining the crowd’s interest (Morning Song>Jimmy Stewart>Morning Song) only to peak again to close (Mulche’s Odyssey>Immigrant Song)
Highlights of night two at the Barrymore were Bayliss and Cinninger on acoustics for Michael Jackson’s “The Girl Is Mine” with a verse of Jane’s Addiction’s “Jane Says” between it. They kept the acoustics out for “August” which had jam on Radiohead’s “National Anthem” and Bayliss remained on acoustic until solo for “August” when he switched back to electric. The second set featured saxophone player Kevin Sinclair of God Johnson on “Ringo” which bookended Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” For the first encore “Prowler” flowed into “Glory” and “All In Time” was finished from the second set. For a second encore Cinninger and Bayliss were again on acoustics with Cummins for Zeppelin’s “That’s The Way.”
Highlights of the Rave show in Milwaukee were a long “Ocean Billy>Blue Echo>Ocean Billy” that was around thirty six minutes to open the first set. The second set opened with “Pay The Snucka” which segued into “The Triple Wide” and after a stellar lyrical “Jimmy Stewart” “Snucka” was finished. For an encore “JaJunk > Hajimemashite > JaJunk” ended the Wisconsin run with a bang.
Three very good shows for Umphrey’s McGee. Different good, filled with spontaneity and outright captivating sets.