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Umphreys McGee & Adrian Belew, The Orbit Room, Grand Rapids, MI 3/16

When Umphrey’s McGee started to get back into the swing of touring again in early March, one major difference was that guitar legend Adrian Belew was along for the ride in the Midwest. Belew traveled with Umphrey’s for four shows and in addition to his opening set, sat in every night on a few tunes. One of the stronger shows on the run was at Grand Rapids’ Orbit Room on March 16th.

Belew’s opening set was basically the same each night, as he took the stage by himself, manned with an arsenal of gadgets and a spinning coil chair. Fans who came to see Belew were treated to, depending on the night, some King Crimson material, Belew’s solo work and some Beatles covers.

At the Orbit Room, Umphrey’s first set started off simply enough, with the title track of the prog-heavy album, Anchor Drops, but the set was carried by three standouts, “Dump City,” “August” and “Der Bluten Kat.” The straightforward version of “Anchor Drops” was quickly overshadowed by the crowd’s energy in “Dump City” as guitarist Jake Cinninger bellowed how great it was to be back in Michigan, between chops in the first half of the song. At the close, the band’s improvisational “Jimmy Stewart” peaked out and away, with bassist Ryan Stasik’s bassline providing a solid starting point for the jam. Cinninger and keyboardist Joel Cummins built around the bass in the first section, while the second section had guitarist Brendan Bayliss and Cinninger harmonizing, using the full range as the music climbed and meandered around a progressive chord style structure. Then a distinct riff from Stasik carried the group back to the start before Cummins’ work on the Moog keyboard brought the music back into the progressive second section again, which slowly wound its way into the end of “Dump City.”

“Der Bluten Kat” has long been a vehicle for Umphrey’s to create new interesting and unique material, and this “DBK” was true to tradition. Starting with Bayliss’ echo-laden solo after the song’s second verse and a section of Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40,” this “DBK” got interesting as drummer Kris Myers started an e-drum beat and Stasik laid a bassline that would make any 90’s hit gangster rap producer proud. Bayliss and Cinninger filled in and Stasik’s bassline dropped out for a few bars, letting the riffs sit before he came back in. A blistering slide solo by Cinninger was spectacular change of pace at the end of “DBK,” providing a way to tweak small things and keep it all fresh.

The second set opened with a “The Triple Wide,” that really showed how Umphrey’s has changed over the past few years. A “Triple Wide” circa 2003/04 would see the band thrash throughout the entire song and each version would sound about the same. But over the past year or two, Umphrey’s seems to be itching to get out of the composed section and create something unique in the jams. On this night the whole band slowly built around an ambient riff, and pulled a beautifully arching improvisation where Cinninger’s notes seem to float perfectly while everyone was tuned in. This “Triple Wide” traversed the ambient to fist-pumping rock, and the last three minutes are worth a second listen.

After “Slacker,” Belew made his first sit-in of the night on a short lead into “Great American” and his presence was swiftly felt as he masterfully squelched out notes, cranking down on his whammy bar. One could see the pure joy that all seven musicians onstage were having, as Belew created riffs, while Cinninger and Bayliss mirrored him and added on. Stasik then sped up the bassline and the song transformed, as Cinninger started a crowd-pleasing jam on the surf anthem “Pipeline.” After this it was a true treat to watch Belew, both play and improvise on “Red” while everyone hit it extra hard on the King Crimson tune.

Closing out the set was the bouncy “Miss Tinkles Overture” (with an “Eye of The Tiger” tease in the introduction) after which Belew came back onstage to join in on the Abbey Road classic, “Come Together,” which made for a stellar sing-along, bringing the night to a resounding close.

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