Umphreys McGee and OM Trio, Fillmore, San Francisco, CA 2/15-17
When ya hot, ya hot.
-Some dumb 70s show (was it also from an Ohio Players song? They ref’d Umphrey’s?)
[Author’s Note: I have not stretched out in a long time in a show review so shut up, get some coffee, ditch the ADD net-a-tude and sink your teeth into some good Umphvibery.]
Chicago>Canada>Pacific Northwest>San Francisco
Coming off an absolutely stunning career overview during the 2007 three-night Chicago New Year’s Eve run, Umphrey’s McGee has been on a roll. To add to the momentum, the band introduced new material during the holiday gigs and dialed the levels even higher by introducing a new cover version in virtually every early 2008 show. San Francisco would be no exception as the 45-song three-night run at the Fillmore Auditorium offered a new cover during the encore each night as a resounding postscript to a great musical triumvirate of shows. Thus far, 2008 gigs have offered long, sprawling sections of tight improvisatory playing interspersed with nearly seamless song segues. In short, if there is a current occupant of the long vacated Phish throne, it surely is this band that continues to defy simple categorization. Are they a jamband or a modern prog enterprise (and prog rock has gone through a bit of a critical renaissance, of late, as well)?
Wellyes and yes but, they are simply Umphrey’s McGee and have been underrated for far too long. The Midwestern sextet begins their second decade in 2008 and have slowly carved their own unique niche and sound in a format that is often beleaguered by the ancient self-indulgent’ and guitar wankery’ tags. That too is true, at times, but damned if those dual complaints were not present for very long at any of the SF hat trick gigs.
Friday, February 15>
Brendan Bayliss is a little hoarse to begin the run. No big thang. The band isn’t even remotely showing signs of fatigue. If anything, the guitarist and vocalist is confident and not letting anything deter him as Umphrey’s slams into the heavy riff and heady dual-part epic known as “Bridgeless.” The band eases into the trance hard rock of “Much Obliged,” and soars into the audio asphalt and sampled jungle of “Dump City”a piece that has seen its share of fine recent workouts. Three songs, thirty minutes and the JAM is already in full flight for the spirited natives and out-of-town hipsters. Indeed, guitarist and vocalist Jake Cinninger quips, “Thanks for all those people coming for all three shows.” (I didn’t travel farthink desert, think rising dead bird from the ashesas some that I spoke withWashington, Illinois and New York, to name a few.) Moments later, with home in the rearview mirror, Cinninger adds: “And all of those Midwestern people.” I was on the rail facing Bayliss for the three nights but, there isn’t a bad spot in thewait for it_legendary_ confines of the chandelier-infested Fillmore so when the first set melted into the sweet “Sociable Jimmy>Bridgeless” closing set bookend, peaks were reached and the hassles, colds, flus and what-if-they-suck-in-Frisco? went out the door.The second set continued the wide open spaces that Umphrey’s have been exploring lately with a seven-song set that included a rich, trippy “Miss Tinkle’s Overture,” a sublime “2nd Self,” another tasty “Der Bluten Kat” sandwich with a new song debut “Gulf Stream” in the middle that, according to the posted set list, includes elements of “Blue Echo” and “Plunger” jams from late 2007 explorations ala their continuing “Jimmy Stewart” experimentations. “Utopian Fir” closed the set and ventured through about a hundred different locales and genres before easing back to terra firma.
I know I’m getting very fan-specific and word-heavy with the details here but one of the long-lasting charms of following a band like Umphrey’s McGee from the Midwest to the coast and back again, is seeing how their music develops from various directionsa jam in Indiana, a studio outtake in Illinois or a post-midnight session on a bus en route to anywhere at anytime. This is a band in full evolutionary focus and the first night in San Francisco showed many sides of what they can produce without a net. Furthermore, most importantly, Umphrey’s McGee appear to have an audience that is willing to take that chance with theman often overlooked aspect of a scene that is prematurely given a post- designation, at times from those too jaded (or bored) with the whole jamband bag to see that new heights are still being reached on a nightly basis. Oh…and they encored with a pretty bang-up version of Rage Against the Machine’s “Bombtrack” that was appropriately kick-ass, heavy and Friday night raucous with OM Trio’s drummer Ilya Stemkovsky on vocals and Brian Felix on keyboardsmore on that tandem later.
Saturday, February 16>
Another book-ended sandwich show“Pay the Snuka” wrapped around Saturdaybut, this time the band extended the huge beast through the entire two sets encapsulating the best night of music during the run (although, Umphrey’s being who they are, the Chicago band played their best set the following nightmore on that triumph later, as well). “Rocker (Part II)”introduced during the NYE Run in Chicago and a continuing tribute to a fallen comradehas turned into quite an escalating thrasher with complex riffery, hints of metal and prog and layers of strong keyboards from Joel Cummins besides the twin-headed percussion beast of Kris Myers and Andy Farag. This song serves as a potentially great jam vessel and is even more welcome as the second number of an opening set. The Zappaesque “Mail Package” featured a wonderfully melodic “Walletsworth” with Bayliss in beautiful form and working through the hoarseness occasionally plaguing his Friday ventures. A long, luxuriant “Triple Wide” closed the set with STS9’s Dave Murphy on bass on a dance floor shakedown note after a cleverly paced and smart setlist fulfilled its early promise. If I haven’t said it yet it is because I could run onto 5,000 words with this thing. In brief, Jake Cinninger infuses songs with tricky time signatures, unique melodies, sharp improv and fast fret work to such a degree that to attempt to single out any greatness would be futile. After the first set (and Friday and Sunday, for that matter), it is all so good to such a degree that you wonder if the man knows that he is reaching a particular summit.
Apparently, that opening set was just a mere appetizer. The second set began with a long, gorgeous, improvisatory reading of “Hurt Bird Bath.” Time for a breather? Hell no. The band brought on Mike Flynn to play the elegantly stately keyboards on “Layla,” with a version that “is dedicated to anybody from the Midwest,” according to Bayliss. Alas, to my chagrin, the band teased the opening notes to Led Zeppelin’s “Rain Song” before charging into Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes chestnut. O.K. That was cool but stillI had to hold back an evil glare directed at the stage. Greedy? Of course. Guilty as charged. Bayliss actually worked his current vocal state into a fantastic take on the song as his delivery mirrored Clapton’s pathos-riddled take to a certain degreesometimes, you just use what’s there and it works in ways that ordinarily wouldn’t.
Time for a breather? Hell no. The band delivered an intricate “Mulche’s Odyssey” jamfest with a supreme version of the groovalicious “Wappy Sprayberry” appropriately applied between to yield another flawlessly segued-sandwich. Bassist Ryan Stasik and Joel Cummins on keys were especially strong on the “Sprayberry” filling with Myers and Farag holding down the rhythm quite well. “Hangover” appeared as an appropriate choice for those on their second night of debauchery and featured Cecil "P-Nut" Daniels on Midi-saxophone and a Miles Davis “So What?” jam. The song was a good breather before the tension-and-release juggernaut called “Higgins” lifted everyone back into the stratosphere and closed the set. The next new cover version during this particular encore was Smashing Pumpkin’s “Rhinoceros,” which was excellent and also serves as another link to the Phish heritage as that song played a rather profound and moving part in their own Phishtory. Not to let the rich and exotic evening end just yet, Umphrey’s McGee segued back into the show opening “Pay the Snuka” with an incendiary close to a little masterpiece of a two-set show.
Sunday, February 17>
Although Saturday was the best overall show of the tripleheader in SF, Sunday’s opening set served as the prime example of why Umphrey’s McGee is suddenly playing at a level that is hard to question. The set consisted of only five songs which is nothing out of the ordinary for the Midwesterners in early 2008. The songs were not seamlessly segued, which is often a mandatory thing for an old, anal retentive Head (uh, guilty as charged) but it was the way each song was played at such a lofty, definitive yet improvisatory level that made me feel that nothing from the five brethren sets touched this magnificence. I alsoalong with a few other old Phish headsconvinced a buddy to check out UM for the first time on Sunday. The initial text message I received was WOW after “JaJunk”the opening number and a taut, tough, transcendent version that only opened a sublime doorway into “Thin Air,” which garnered a DOUBLE WOW text message from the aforementioned old Phish head turned into an eyebrow-raised peep.
“FF>Slacker” followed with what can be best described as reggae meets grunge, hip-hop with rap and ambient space music with a large dash of metal and jam mixed together into about 30 minutes of exuberant playing. “Wizard Burial Ground” closed the set with another heaping of metal via prog rock and served as an apt statement of a band willing to move between genres and return to a central focal point without missing a beat.
The sometimes Bisco-y second set was also filled with sharp collaboration and a fine example of how well certain musicians can play with a great band. However, that doesn’t always mean that you are hearing the actual band, per se, play their best set. If that makes sense then let me add that the key to this set’s gem-like statusalbeit nowhere near the extraterrestrial bad-ass nature of the opening setis that so many musicians came and went and appeared to just plain know that they were taking part on what could eventually be called a legendary run. The laundry list of stellar guests included Mitch Marcus on sax on “Intentions Clear”I was right in front of him and I loved how he just seemed to get off on playing without abandon with the groupSteve Molitz from Particle and a current Friend in Phil Lesh’s band sat in on keyboards and rap vocals on “Nothing Fancy>Children’s Song (a debut),” Tea Leaf Green’s guitarist Josh Clark replaced Bayliss on a very hard rock take of “40s Theme,” and Marcus returned for the encore and new cover debut of, appropriately enough, Ween’s “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night.”
Soback to the beginning: Are they a jamband or a modern prog enterprise (and prog rock has gone through a bit of a critical renaissance, of late, as well)? Does it matter?
Yes and Yes and Nothey are playing very well right now and that bodes well for 2008.
Umphrey’s McGee asked and OM Trio answered “Yes,” and a three-year hiatus ended. The Trio dusted off their instruments and returned for a two-show Fillmore opening slot and a Sunday late night gighence the “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night” reference.
Both sets were well-attendedlike full house well-attended. This is San Francisco where fans still take their music quite seriously and if a band like OM Trio is returning than everyone is in the house fairly quickly. I was impressed as I have often seen the opposite and the band is probably thinking “what the fuck are you doing outside?”
OM Trio did not disappoint. Sounds trite, clichand too pat but it is true. I was on the rail and the smiles between the three musiciansBrian Felix on keyboards, Pete Novembre on bass and Ilya Stemkovsky on drumsmatched the quality of the playing. The Friday setlist offered a large feast of downtempo grooves with long jam passages that were beautifully played“Double Negative,” “Brekfist>24 Hours to New Orleans> San Francisco Improv>Refusenik” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Suck My Kiss.”
Saturday’s set was even better as the smiles returned big time from the musicians and the playing was more fluid and exploratory on a setlist that included “Dust Up,” “Anew,” “Bulbous>Mesh>Bulbous” and a Jake Cinninger, guitar-enriched “Phobophobe.”
Sunday’s late night set at the Boom Boom Room, which is across the street from the Fillmore, was long and fruitful with UM guest collaborations from Joel Cummins and Kris Myers and Particle’s Steve Molitz continuing his guest slot for the night by sitting in on “Bulbous.” One can only hope that special events like Umphrey’s three-night Fillmore residency happen again so that others can enjoy the Trio in some other location. Of special note is the wonderful interplay between Novembre on bass and Stemkovsky on drumsa tandem that appeared to be playing for their very lives and enjoying every second while Felix orchestrated with a huge grin on his face behind the keyboards.
Ohand one last thing. The band gets IT, too. They thanked Umphrey’s profusely from the stage for the invitation and the fans for returning to hear them play.
As posted on their web site after the shows:
Hello OM Trio Fans,
Thanks to those of you who joined us for the outstanding weekend in SF. It was a great privilege to perform for you again
Brian, Pete and Ilya,
_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com