Umphreys McGee threw down in New York City this week in anticipation of their first new studio album in two years, Death By Stereo, hitting stores next week. Their time in the Big Apple included four straight nights at Brooklyn Bowl, plus a special interactive S2 event Thursday afternoon and an in-store appearance at the SoHo Apple Store Friday afternoon. Consequence of Sound brings you this review of the Wednesday show and the Thursday S2 event.
Wednesday, September 7th, 2011
On any given night, you could end up seeing any one of a number of different Umphreys McGees. Some nights, its a full-on electronic disco dance party. Some nights, its a metal band (albeit one that jams quite a bit). Some nights, its a band that seems to have musical ADHD, abruptly jolting their audience from style to style as they annihilate their staggeringly large catalog of originals and covers. And some nights, its a band that abandons every good improvisational idea just as it gets going, like a case of musical blue balls.
Ive rarely been as satisfied with an Umphreys McGee show as the one I saw Wednesday night.
Granted, this is not the same band that I last saw in 2006. In the last five years, Umphreys has only gotten tighter, more electronic, more dynamic, and better at their absurdly unique system of jamming, in which entire instrumental verses are improvised on the spot and turned into glorious, complete-sounding compositions. Most importantly, Umphreys has shed the few growing pains they had in the early 2000s and are now able to produce high-quality, often transcendent shows on a consistent basis. Their fervent fanbase is all too happy to remind you of just how good their band is: Multiple Umph Melts Face t-shirts were spotted in the venue.
For a band who is known for their guitar wizardry and has covered Slayer, I was equally surprised and impressed at their ability to embrace a slick, groove based improvisation, where shredder licks take a back seat to thoughtful and intricate short melodies, and a solid pocket of drums, synths, and bass hold everything down in a funky, neo-disco foundation. It was never more apparent than during Wappy Sprayberry, a supremely patient dancefest that served as the highlight of the first set. Alternating between sections of repetitive disco riffs and a bluesier rock song with vocals, Umphreys showed that they don’t have to resort to dissonant melodies (although they do plenty of that) or disorienting metrical tricks (ditto). Theyve managed to integrate the prog rock aesthetic into something that is accessible for anyone who likes to dance, to rock out, to headbang, or to chill out, something their ’70s forebears couldnt necessarily claim.
Yet at their core, Umphreys will always be the jam band with arguably the most progressive rock influence. The in-your-face compositional complexity of Andys Last Beer, the odd melodies and rhythms surrounding a chunky rock riff in JaJunk, or the intricate Plunger were all sure to please the most discerning Yes or ELP fan (not to mention the brief tease of Yess Roundabout). Their inherent proggyness has found new expression in a variety of styles, such as the fast and trancey Cemetary Walk II, a techno groove in 7/8 time that got the second set started with a massive dance party. Or the newer song Forks, featuring a synthesizer sequencer and equal parts pyrotechnic guitar and psychedelic funk.
Umphreys has a soft spot for ’80s covers, and while we didnt get to hear Totos Africa or Flock of Seagulls I Ran (both past offenders), the band took a gorgeous instrumental run through Springsteens Im On Fire and a spirited version of the late Beatles rocker Ive Got a Feeling. They satisfied their ’80s kicks with a debut performance of Miami Virtue from their new album, a song with a four-on-the-floor new wave beat and heavily distorted guitars subbing for synth lines. Although it was of album version length, the song shows considerable promise to grow into a jamming monster.
Regardless of whatever else the term connotes, Umphreys is a jamband, and a damn good one at that. The atypical, reggae-flavored jam during Resolution was a highlight in this regard, with dual lead guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss settling into an interlocking, polyphonic groove over Ryan Stasiks fluid, melodic bass lines. A totally different kind of psychedelic dub jam emerged on Cemetery Walk II, with slow, throbbing piano riffs that led back into that familiar seven-beat disco. While their improvisational abilities were on full display Wednesday night, Thursdays special performance would show how these six guys stand out from every other jamband around.
Go To Hell
I’ve Got a Feeling
Cemetery Walk I
Cemetery Walk II, Resolution*
Hajimemashite, Miami Virtue**
Andy’s Last Beer
I’m on Fire
The Fussy Dutchman
The Song Remains The Same
*w/ Roundabout (Yes) teases
Thursday, September 8th, 2011
Ten years ago to the day, Umphreys McGee starting playing improvisational exercises in the ballroom of a hotel where a friend was getting married. The room was called the Jimmy Stewart Ballroom, and so they began to call these completely free jams Jimmy Stewarts”. Two years ago, the band took it up a notch, creating a highly sought-out, limited attendance event where fans, through the magic of text messaging, could send ideas to the band, who would adjust their Stewart jam to accommodate the verbal cue. They called this an S2 Stew Art event, and it was only fitting that on the tenth anniversary of their first drunken exploration of this idea, they would hold an S2 at Brooklyn Bowl.
With only about 50 die hard fans allowed in, the band took an incredibly laid-back and friendly approach with their audience. Leaving the stylistic direction of the music entirely up to the fans is an impressive feat, one that requires not only confidence in the bands improvisational abilities but a selflessness to let go of musical control. The band played three sets of around 20 minutes each, based entirely on phrases appearing projected on the wall next to them. Synthesized washes of sound flooded out from keyboardist Joel Cummings Moog synth and soon sped up into a nasty house jam in response to the first two phrase cues: Moogasaurus Rex and Dark and EVIL Dance Party. Industrial jam saw the band do their best Neubauten impression, with drummer Kris Myers flying around his drum kit and percussionist Andy Farag finding anything metal to hit amongst his arsenal of sound. However, the final few cues seemed too close to the sort of thing that Umphreys does anyway on any given night, such as soaring uplifting reprise or disco trance.
The second jamming segment was the best of the three, striking the perfect balance between the comfortable and familiar. To start it off, the band created washes of attack-less guitar and waves of color for Brian Eno ambient, showing a brilliant understanding of a Music for Airports-style drone. Eventually, they added drum fills that grew into a hard-edged beat, transforming Eno into Umphreys. The serene soundworld perfectly segued into funkytown for slap that bass, on top of which a dueling guitar ragefest ensued. When the next cue read ZAPPAAAAAA!!!!!, the band instantly turned on a dime into Willie the Pimp, the bluesy Hot Rats track, with Cinninger taking on the snarling vocal duties.
In many ways, the S2 is reminiscent of the directed improvisational experiments of downtown composer and saxophonist John Zorn, albeit more jamband than free jazz. Like Zorn, Umphreys imbued their miniature sets with a fair bit of humor. Zorn called his guided improvisations game pieces, and make no mistake about it, S2 is definitely a game. Which isnt to say that its a joke or that the band doesnt take it seriously. With fans as devoted and critical as theirs, Umphreys has to show up big time for something like this, but the added investment clearly yields an added payoff. Sublime moments such as a heavy metal take on their normally serene anthem Glory, complete with early Megadeth speed drumming and strumming, or the sublime segment melodic drum n bass, with Myers laying down a blistering breakbeat while Stasik carved out a fluid, circular line in the highest register of his bass, clearly showed their willingness to put it all out there.
But they were still able to act like Midwestern goofballs, especially drummer Kris Myers, who offered some nearly perfect DeNiro impersonations in response to Myers does Goodfellas (complete with Layla outro on piano and slide guitar), and then obliging a fan who texted trade instruments by picking up a guitar and doing his best (or worst) Jake Cinninger impression.
Above all, the S2 event, Wednesdays show– and indeed this entire New York run– showed not only the musical prowess of Umphreys McGee but their connection to and genuine appreciation of their fans. During a Q&A session following the S2 sets, the band was asked about their new contract with ATO Records. Bayliss replied that it might allow them to reach new people who wouldnt have the opportunity to hear them otherwise, or in other words, non-jamband fans. With their attention to musical detail, their playful but serious attitude, their highly danceable grooves, and the occasional seeing God apotheosis, Umphreys McGee seems ready to add even more appreciative fans.
Dark and EVIL Dance Party
Soaring Uplifting Reprise
Heavy Metal Uplifting Rock
Brian Eno Ambient
Slap That Bass
Dueling Guitar Ragefest
Melodic Drum n Bass
Myers Does Goodfellas
Heavy Metal Glory
Funky Porn Groove
The Honeymoon Suite (Sex on the Beach)
Get Floydy Weird Jam
Jake’s Favorite Song