all words: Colin Wilhelm
Amidst a seizurous assault of LAZERS(!) and a mostly college-aged crowd that occasionally emitted illicit substance odors, Umphrey’s McGee delivered a two-set show worthy of their reputation as one of the better live bands around.
The sets included a number of live staples (in addition to recent tracks from their new album), such as extended versions of “Jajunk” and “In the Kitchen”, with the requisite soloing and musicianship that have earned Umphreys it’s rabidly mellow following. The lion’s share of solos went to lead guitarist Jake Cinninger who made the most of them, stirring up fevered responses after fretting his signature high-pitched wailer of a guitar into noises that at times sounded like they came from a face-melting 8-bit cartridge game soundtrack rather than a guitar.
Many bands sound better live because studio recordings often have trouble fully capturing their energy. In the case of Umphrey’s one could also argue that their strength lies far more in technical musicianship than in their songwriting; their lyrics are few and far between, and don’t match the sophistication of the music that their ability allows them to play. That’s not necessarily a fault, as watching them play hummingbird-fast notes with ostensible ease lends itself favorably to the concert experience, but this can lead to songs that sound a little cold, resonant much more on the technical level rather than the emotional one; those same songs can also slouch towards sounding like one big prog-metalish jam.
If all those seem like minor quibbles that’s because, well, they are. No one at the 9:30 Club on Friday seemed to care about any of that, as hundreds of “umphreaks” danced to their tunes: Umphrey’s McGee should invest in a wayback machine if only to be featured in Dave Chappelle’s “White People Dancing” sketch. Few at the club could claim to not be having fun, including the band, and perhaps no one more so than bassist Ryan Stasik, who seemed to have “Slappin’ da Bass” scene from I Love You, Man stuck in his head throughout the night.
It’s amazing also how, like television forcing you to learn something through “edutainment”, Umphrey’s manages to sneak one of the least accessible musical genres known to man, prog-metal into the ears of unsuspecting young men and women under the guise of “jamming”. Not every song was quite like that, but most had moments where you could close your eyes and imagine yourself listening to some Icelandic-nu-viking-death-clown-mediumcore-or-whatever-other-sub-genres-metal-fans-make-up-in-the-spare-time-they-have-from-avoiding-contact-with-women-at-all-costs-band. It’s frankly kind of nice to hear a sound, as geekily cool as the Star Wars dolls that adorned Umphrey’s amps, accepted on a widescale basis. Umphrey’s acknowledged and embraced their now semi-ironic influences by earnestly playing a more rocking rendition of (BYT-favorite) Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years” towards the end of their second set, and a similarly spirited cover of Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” in the encore.
As one gentleman was heard during the concert, “Smile, you’re at an Umphery’s McGee show.” And indeed you must, at least a little, as they proceed to melt your face off with their agonizingly fast play and drop of a dime stops and tempo shifts, all while bathing you in the intermittently harsh and soft glow of a synchronized light show.