Umphrey’s McGee, The Regency Ballroom, San Francisco, CA – 1/16
Photos by Kelsey Winterkorn
Originally this show was going to be held at The Warfield, but at the last minute it was changed to the Regency Ballroom. The Regency is somewhat smaller with a capacity of about 1300 but the building, originally built in 1909, is a piece of art itself. The horseshoe-shaped balcony overlooks the large hardwood dance floor, making it a divine venue for a great light show, with decent acoustics and ample facilities.
Cornmeal came out around 9 pm and put on a high energy progressive bluegrass performance. The band is made up of a guitarist, banjo player, upright bassist, drummer, and the unspoken star: Ally Kral on fiddle. They played heavy and fast, stretching out typical bluegrass standards with long jams, usually characterized with Kral soloing on the fiddle, throwing her entire body into the motion. The vocals from the guitarist, Kris Nowak were pitch perfect. If you are into traditional bluegrass with no patience for any form of newgrass, this might not be the band for you but if you like progressive music pushing the edge of their genre, then Cornmeal might be your thing.
Umphrey’s came on stage and immediately the mood in the room shifted. In the small gap between Cornmeal and Umphrey’s, the Ballroom slowly filled with smoke and Jeff Waful, the lighting director, let it shine from the first note to the last.
Opening with “1348,” Umphrey’s wasted no time building. While perhaps slow to get the crowd involved, the intensity of the song did not lack by any measure. The group did what it seems to do best and that is go from zero to sixty in flash, heavy on the funk, which proved to be one of the themes this evening.
The first set was centered around keyboardist Joel Cummins, who really shined and took the MVP of the first set, laying down a variety of strange noises and notes, along with his typical parts and multiple solos. As the band shifted into “Much Obliged,” guitarist Brendan Bayliss got to show off his voice during this upbeat tune, a very complex version of the funk. Brendan who shared the guitar roles with Jake Cinninger as usual, also had a memorable solo during “Much Obliged,” which segued into “2nd Self.” During this sequence, while drummer Kris Myers kept the beats consistent and strong while Andy Farag offered counterpoints on percussion, the musical layers mashed and meshed, with Jake noodling intricate lead guitar riffs and Brendan holding the rhythm down.
“Ringo” was the highpoint of the first set, with its fast-paced and more drawn-out jams. By this time the audience was dancing and swaying. From the balcony above, the crowd looked like a sea of color as Waful bathed everyone in blue and yellow. Following “Fussy Dutchman,” where Joel teased the Peanuts theme, Bayliss told the crowd that Jeff would sport a Speedo if the audience danced hard enough during the next song, which turned out to be an energetic cover of Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years.” It was played tight, but with massive power. It was very impressive how they managed to jam it out yet still kept the song intact, giving it due respect. No Speedo sightings, but the crowd did its part and the first set ended on a high note.
The second set was all Cinninger, who starting out with “Nothing Too Fancy,” took control of the lead and rarely relented. Where the first set was funk-heavy and relatively straightforward, the second set started out spacey and would continue this way throughout. This was true during “Divisions,” one of the first songs in the Umphrey’s catalog, which was played with an ambient feel (although Cinninger took every opportunity to add metal flourishes as well).
There is a real contrast between the guitar work of Bayliss and Cinninger. If Cinninger is inspired by Anthrax and Danzig, Bayliss is more influenced by Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead. The contrast always seems to balance out well, as it did on this evening. “The Pequod” was sandwiched within “Plunger” and then as Waful took the lights from a flashing strobe to a glowing haze, the band slowly built into Bob Marley’s, “Rastaman Chant.” With the guitarists, drummers, the lights and the crowd all as one it was a very intense and moving moment. Even though they jammed it out some, the drummers and bassist Ryan Stasik kept the traditional reggae rhythm throughout, holding it tight to its roots. “Rastaman Chant” zoned out at the end and segued into the title track off their latest release, “Mantis.” During this point the energy in the room was immense, while Cinninger and Stasik faced each other. From here, Umphrey’s went into the crowd-participatory “Bright Lights” and then went back into “Mantis” and with Cinninger giving way to the drummers to do a small version of “Drums” before they finished the second set off with the ending of “Mantis.” The room was on fire.
The encore was crowd favorite, “Miss Tinkle Overture.” Typically a rock opera of a song, it was played quickly, and was not jammed out to its full potential as it was well after 1:30 in the morning and the band rushed through it. With Waful going nuts on the lights, always syncopated with the band’s fast changes, it was still a crowd-pleaser and fitting close to a high-energy night at the Regency.