Umphrey’s McGee, North Mississippi All Stars and Hill Country Review, Rams Head Live!, Baltimore, MD – 4/4
When Luther Dickinson stepped out at the end of Umphreys McGees first set at Rams Head Live! in Baltimore on April 4 for an appropriately chosen Rolling Stones cover, he fittingly took the lead in the three man axe attack.
Dickinsons North Mississippi All Stars opened the show along with brother and band mate Cody Dickinsons Hill Country Revue. On Cant You Hear Me Knocking, Dickinson ripped some classic, bluesy licks, leading the charge. Then, Umphreys McGees Jake Cinninger got his chance to show off his own Floydian space blues. Finally, all three guitarists converged on Brendan Bayliss side, sending out a swirl of sound, bringing the song and the set to an appropriate climax.
A bit later, Cody Dickinson got his turn. Early in Umphreys McGees second set, Dickinson emerged during the Cemetery Walk II jam with his signature washboard in tow. The band settled into a hip-hop groove, before delving into a dark reggae trance the washboard setting an eerie mood. Cinningers pinch harmonics proved the perfect compliment to Dickinsons washed-out, atmospheric sound.
Of course, Umphreys couldnt leave out NMAS biggest, and funkiest member: bassist Chris Chew. Along with Beyonces touring drummer Nikki Glaspie, Chew settled in nicely for Der Bluten Kats jam section. Youd think the band would have adjusted to suit Chew and presumably Glaspies more funky side, but it was the other way around both added their expertise to a hard-edged piece of improv.
But wait, this was an Umphreys McGee show not Umphreys McGee featuring the North Mississippi All Stars. Though, it somewhat felt that way especially when you take into account NMAS and Hill Country Reviews opening set.
The two bands shared the stage for about 90 minutes prior to Umphreys, with a mini-Hill Country Review set featuring all of NMAS that eventually gave way to a mini-NMAS set, before both bands joined again. NMAS plus Hill Country Review had a much fuller sound than standard NMAS, perhaps with an even better sense of psychedelic blues, with hints of Cream and Jimi Hendrix during its set. At one point, Cody Dickinson broke out the washboard while Luther Dickinson moved to drums, with a spacey washboard intro eventually leading to a down-home, funky groove.
Still, Umphreys McGee was the star of the night. The band made up for a somewhat lackluster if only for its lack of cohesion first set with a stellar second set. If anything, the band showed it can now settle more comfortably into certain grooves maintaining a more constant ebb and flow. This was apparent both in the bands more fluid than normal jamming and in the contrast between the first and second sets.
Where set one jumped back and forth between styles, from the crunchy prog rock opener JaJunk to the poppy, but jazzy Intentions Clear, set two flowed smoothly, each song seemingly complimenting the last. Not to say the first set wasnt without its moments.
Aside from the Dickinson sit-in highlight, there was some fantastic jamming from the core band. Many times Umphreys McGee is guilty of the stop-start transition, where the band ends a song without any theatrics, quickly launching into the next a sharp sort of transition. But this was not evident as Intentions Clear slowly morphed into Dump City, perhaps showing the bands maturity as it glides through its second decade. A subtle, industrial-like jam gave way super smoothly to the hard, funky and video game-sounding Dump City.
Eventually, some heavy synthesizer work by Joel Cummins gave way to a Jimmy Stewart which included lyrics from Bayliss. As the band settled into a groove very reminiscent of the songs on Mantis, the bands latest album, Bayliss started throwing out lines like, winter turning to fall and finger splits in two/ what else can I do? A commendable effort as its not every singer who has the balls to test out working lyrics, on-the-spot, live, in the middle of a completely improvised piece.
But it was the second set where the band found its stride.
Divisions is welcome at any time nearly perfect as an opener, with Cinninger at one point shooting out notes like they came from a machine gun. Cemetery Walk II, which featured the aforementioned washboard jam, is a perfect excuse to mention Umphreys McGees new lighting man, Jeff Waful. The former moe. employees lights add a new dimension to the bands stage show. Wafuls new toy, the Mac 3 the same style of lighting rig Phish used in Hampton last month produces brilliant cone-shaped beams of light. When you add Wafuls work on the projection screen behind the band, you get one visually stimulating show. The purple and white disco balls projected behind Umphreys as it tore through Cemetery Walk II was a perfect match.
Mantiss Turn and Run didnt pack the same improvisational punch as the bands lived-in material, but it was an incredibly tight take, barely decipherable from the studio recording. It served as a nice lead-in to the end of Divisions, bringing the set full-circle, and to what would have been a reflective close. As the Bayliss belted out the songs refrain and the soaring guitars began to ease it seemed the band would call it a night. But two Mantis songs just werent enough, so 1348 was tacked on for good measure ending the set on a guitar-heavy electronica note.
As the band left for an encore, there was still an unfinished guitar battle. As Kris Meyers banged on an electronic drum, the rest of the band emerged for Umphreys McGees self-referential theme song of sorts, Pay The Snucka. With the songs latter sections basically an excuse for Cinninger and Bayliss to shred, it was no surprise to see Luther Dickinson reemerge for a final showdown.
All three guitarists riffed in a swirl of sounds with Cinninger ripping Van Halen at times as the song hit its heavy peak.
While no winner was declared, it didnt matter. Umphreys McGee, with a little help from their friends, had put on a party of a show. After all, the best party on a Saturday night might as well be a rock show.