Umphreys McGee – Show Review

Stage AE – Pittsburgh, PA – 10/19/12

by Ryan Neeley exclusively for Appalachian Jamwich

There’s no place like home.   Umphreys McGee’s fans clicked their glass slippers together and found themselves at Stage AE in Pittsburgh on Friday to celebrate the homecoming of sorts for the South Bend, IN bred band.   Also the hometown of bassist Ryan Stasik, who is a HUGE Pittsburgh Steelers/Pirates/Penguins supporter (once saw him at Wrigley Field rockin Pirate gear-  REPRESENT!), one of the band’s first productive sessions was held in the Jimmy Stewart Ballroom at the Renaissance Hotel in Pittsburgh back in September of 2001 during the wedding of web designer/fan Jeremy Welsh’s wedding.   There is even a part of their show they called the Jimmy Stewart, which is very structured improv that basically involves one of the band members being the conductor of the jam and everyone looks off to them to change the dynamic using signals and talk-back mics for more complicated ideas.   The idea was to write songs on the fly instead of just noodling or loosely jamming out.   And on Friday night, they definitely were in-your-face tight and precise – they took fans to a whole new level of appreciation for the Umphreys machine.

The night started with Austin, TX rockers The Bright Light Social Hour, featuring Curtis Roush on guitar and vocals, Jack O’Brien on bass/vocals, Joseph Mirasole on drums, and AJ Vincent on keys and vocals, and the crowd gave the 7 year old funk/soul/psychedelica quartet a warm welcome.   TBLSH returned the favor with a small taste of their raw high-energy live performance, with heavy chords and impressive keyboard work.

Shortly after 9pm, Umphrey’s McGee – guitar/vocalist Brendan Bayliss, keyboardist Joel Cummins, bassist Ryan Stasik, guitar/vocals Jake Cinninger, Andy Farag and Kris Myers on drums/percussion,  touring in support of their Death By Stereo offering, took the stage to a roar from the crowd, with hands extended in the air in making the “U” sign, bursting with anticipation.  And the 15 year old founders of progressive improvisation, or “improg” wasted no time releasing the hounds onto the ears and eyes of the crowd, firing into an intro called Jekyll&Hyle, with a Cummins piano solo and very tight chord work, seamlessly launching into an agressive Plunger.   The fireworks were in full regalia thanks for Umphrey’s impressive lighting engineer Jefferson Waful.   This man is an artist that not many can match, and I had to step back to the board for a song or two during the evening to watch him create a masterpiece on the Stage AE canvas, with intensity that is difficult to pull off in these days, when every band has a plethora of LEDs.  When folks walk away from a show talking about a Lighting Director in addition to the band, well, there’s just something to be said about that.   But if you paid attention, you would see that Sound Engineer Chris Mitchell is no slouch either – I don’t remember hearing a band that loud but incredibly clear and crisp. The next selection would be my favorite of the evening, a funkified In The Kitchen, “it was cold in the kitchen and the lights were low / as winter slowly stumbled home / the air felt different and it started to show/as every breath resembles smoke” – Being in my late 30’s, I’ve followed Umphreys meteoric rise on the scene, and have witnessed the band’s amazing transition from opening act to being on the verge of headlining arenas, being blessed with the opportunity to see them in front of less than 40 people to seeing them in front of thousands, and I can say that they’re as tight as ever, and slightly even more intense than I remember.   They push their songs to a level not attempted, much less achieved by jambands out there today, and are what I consider the infinite definition of the word JAMBAND – they are “a band that jams,” a term once used by Gregg Allman to decribe the Allman Brothers.     If you pay particular attention to them during the “Jimmy Stewart improg” portion of the show, the trade-offs, hand signals, and visual prompts give the songs structure without stifling their creativity, and just when you think it can’t get any better, crisper, and more together, they take it up one more level in an effort to melt the face right off your head.    Other highlights of Set one included an Uncle Wally, Wizard Burying Ground and Atmosfarag, and they ended set one with another favorite of mine, an extended anthem Morning Song.

At intermission, I, like many others in the crowd, needed to post up somewhere for a second, have a seat and a smoke – but the architechts of Stage AE (and the LC Pavilion in Columbus) decided it would be a fun idea if they made the bathroom and smoking exit the same line.   So, needless to say (just like when SCI was there) we got crammed in like cattle heading to slaughter trying to push our way out the door.   And when you hit the smoking section, you were just as crammed.   I understand that it’s a challenge building an indoor/outdoor venue and you want the bathroom to be accessible from either side, but for Pete’s sake (or the sanity of countless puffers), make a seperate smoking entrance.   I REALLY like the venue, save for that one aspect.

The boys came out for the second set, and by this time, they owned the dance happy crowd.   This was a very HEAVY Umphrey’s evening, more heavy than I can ever remember seeing them.    Opening with a Radiohead cover, Weird Fishes/Apreggi, last played at Red Rocks on 9/14/12,  then Miss Tinkles Overture, and the Led Zeppelin-like Conduit, they took the crowd on a journey with cresendo peaks and valleys, rhythm and abrupt key changes that are extremely difficult to pull off as a group, and impressive heavy metal chords that would make Black Sabbath drool.  End of the Road was up next, a song that was also played last at the 9/14 Red Rocks show.  Other second set highlights included a proper and solid Hajimemashite, which is how people introduce themselves in Japaneese (I believe the actual translation is “we start our relationship.”) and has been one of Umphrey’s setlist choices for almost 15 years, originally performed by the pre UM band Tashi Station, which Bayliss and Stasik were a part of.  The song has evolved and changed over the years and makes an appearance on their Death by Stereo LP, but maintains it’s uniqueness and mystical edgeiness.

A proper encore – JaJunk, with Joel Cummins shining – It seems he can reel the band in when they veer off course, always staying on point while exploring musical universes that most don’t dream of going.  I always enjoy speaking to a person who is having their first Umphrey experience, and Friday was no different.  I ended up meeting Kyle Flowers of Oklahoma City, OK during TBLSH’s set, and he explained that he had never seen Umphrey’s and didn’t know what to expect.   PERFECT!   Seeing shows throughuot the summer and seeing Umphreys a dozen or so times, Kyle would be a perfect thermometer to gauge the Umphrey performance.   In speaking to him after the show the following day on our way to the Trey show in Columbus, he stated that it was “an epic experience.  The jams were a nice blend of the highs and lows of rock, the soft and hard, yin and yang.   At one point a girl next to me was dancing with a Jason mask on.  At first I thought it was cute but then by the end of the show I knew it was to protect her face from a meltdown.   The show was hyperintense and well worth the price – I will definitely see Umphrey’s again.”   Well said my new friend, well said.

And as the crowd filed out as Stage AE, smiles and hugs were aplenty, and the word “Huh?  Can you repeat that?” was heard a number of times, ears still ringning from the joyful sounds that wrapped themselves around you like a warm blanket on a brisk night.   And as the fan clicked their sandles, shoes or slippers together, they exclaimed while closing their eyes and wishing to themselves, “there’s no place like an Umphrey’s show, there’s no place like an Umphrey’s show.”

 SET 1 – Jekyll&Hyde>Plunger, In the Kitchen, Atmosfarag>Intentions Clear,Wizard Burial Ground, Uncle Wally, Morning Song

SET 2 – Weird Fishes/Arpeggi*, Miss Tinkles Overture, Conduit, End of the Road >Search 4, Hajimesmashite, Hurt Bird Bath, Puppet String.

E:   JaJunk

* cover – Radiohead