Umphrey’s McGee – January 28th, Best Buy Theater
Words: Scott Bernstein
Images: Jeremy Gordon
Since first performing at the iconic Wetlands Preserve in 1999, the Big Apple has served as a home away from home for the Chicago-by-way-of-South Bend sextet Umphrey’s McGee. The band has watched the size of its NYC fanbase grow from a handful at those early gigs, to the thousands who have packed the group’s Best Buy Theater performances over the past five years by constantly returning to the city about every six months.
[All photos by Jeremy Gordon]
Just when fans got used to having Umphrey’s around, the band took a break from New York City shows by not scheduling any gigs within 30 miles of the country’s largest city for the 11-month period leading up to the group’s long-awaited return this past Friday. Not only would UM perform at the mid-sized Best Buy Theater on Friday, but they also scheduled a more intimate show at Brooklyn Bowl three nights later. Adding to the intrigue was sound caresser Kevin Browning’s announcement that he would be working from the band’s Chicago headquarters after 12 years on the road starting on February 1st, a date that would make the Brooklyn Bowl show his last behind the board.
The two shows were completely different in terms of not only the music, but the composition and energy of the crowd. Fans over 16 could attend the Best Buy performance, while only those over 21 years of age could get in to the Brooklyn Bowl. Younger Umphreaks, who were found in large numbers on Friday night, were much more outwardly enthusiastic and it was hard not to get caught up in their excitement. Brooklyn Bowl featured a much more subdued audience, but that’s not to say the crowd was playing tiddlywinks and chatting the night away.
READ ON for more on Umphrey’s return to New York City…
Opening with the bright and poppy Nemo, the exuberant audience roared its approval at each of the song’s changes. During the break in the middle of the tune, guitarist Brendan Bayliss announced the Brooklyn Bowl show which fired up the crowd even more. The Wappy Sprayberry that followed was the first of five UM originals that clocked in at over 10 minutes on a night filled with the group’s unique brand of improvisation.
In the past, Umphrey’s had used Wappy to showcase a more electronic, untz-driven style of jamming but the version at the Best Buy was pure rock as the group patiently built the tempo before segueing into their latest single, Wellwishers. Early in the show it was clear the band was on its game and was just as happy to be back in the Big Apple as the fans seemed to be to have the boys back in town. 2X2 was a chance to display the hairpin turns in Umphrey’s originals that often bring the phrase “musical ADD” to mind and included another “composed” jam that extended the length of the tune to near 20 minutes before a short but sweet version of Nothing Too Fancy.
For the past few years, the sextet has debuted mash-ups featuring both originals and covers at their Halloween shows. At the group’s 2010 Halloween performance they unveiled Bittersweet Haji, which combined elements of The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony with their own Hajimemashite. Bittersweet Haji was dusted off for the Best Buy and was disappointing. Haji shows off the soulful side of Umphrey’s thanks to Bayliss’ intense vocal delivery and guitarist Jake Cinninger’s shred-filled solo. The addition of the Bittersweet Symphony piano line and vocals took away from the best parts of Hajimemashite and was fairly distracting. Most mash-ups UM creates work well, this one didn’t at all.
After a jammed out Rocker (part II) ended the first set, the band returned to the stage with one of their signature originals – Miss Tinkle’s Overture. Tinkle’s was the first of many prog anthems thrown down in the second set. Another UM original that displays the prog sensibilities of the group, Plunger, came next and gloriously segued into Glory, a song that showcases Cinninger’s fretboard theatrics, before finishing Plunger. You can’t help but hear Yes influences in Miss Tinkle’s and Plunger, so it was fitting that Umphrey’s unveiled their take on Roundabout in the middle of the closing stanza.
UM debuted Roundabout on December 30th in Chicago, but for most in attendance this was their first time seeing the group’s version of the prog-rock classic. Outside of Cinninger emulating the distinctive intro on electric instead of acoustic, Umphrey’s stuck to the script for Roundabout and the crowd ate up every second of it. On an evening filled with high-energy moments, Roundabout was a clear highlight and showed off just how tight a band can get from touring hard for 13 years without a break. Jeff Waful has stood out for years as one of the best LDs in the scene and his work during Roundabout drove that point home.
The best “jam” of the night came during an In The Kitchen which featured Bayliss acknowledging the terrible winter New Yorkers have gone through by substituting the lyric, “It’s cold in the kitchen and the lights look pretty, but the snow keeps fucking with New York City.” As you can see on the band’s blog, The Floor, the Kitchen “jam” was a segment thought up by drummer Kris Myers that combined elements of dance, ambient, electronic and rock music. A dance party took hold as the group alternated between the different sections of this composed jam that many were hoping would never end. Eventually, Umphrey’s segued into the end of Nothing Too Fancy before closing with The Floor and encoring with Bridgeless.
Perhaps absence does make the heart grow fonder as you rarely see an audience respond to a band the way the Best Buy crowd did to Umphrey’s McGee on Friday night. Just three nights later, the group would return to within city limits for their first show at Brooklyn Bowl, which also acted as an emotional farewell to Browning. Look for the second part of our Umphrey’s in NYC review later this week for more on that performance.