The ascension continues for Chicago’s Umphrey’s McGee, not only in terms of their commercial success but in creative accomplishment and instrumental achievement as well. Their performance on Live at the Murat (SCI Fidelity), their first official live release, is as impressive as anything they’ve recorded to date, with the power and finesse, the yin and the yang, that have come to characterize their by-now classic material.
Recorded in Indianapolis in April 2007 and produced by longtime “sound caresser” / honorary seventh member Kevin Browning, the two-disc set features fan favorites like “Push the Pig,” “The Triple Wide,” “In the Kitchen,” and “Nothing Too Fancy” along with rare tunes like the set-ending “Padgett’s Profile” and the brief but torrid “Angular Momentum,” centered on the combo of drummer Kris Myers and guitarist Jake Cinninger. The band also dusts off tunes like “Hajimemashite” from ’98s Songs for Older Women, and the Yes meets Little Feat-influenced “40’s Theme,” a live favorite for the band and its fans.
Throughout the show, UM’s invention brings the progressive instrumental chops of Zappa and the stylistic savvy of Steely Dan. It is innovative without being indulgent, exhilarating without losing control, and there are plenty of improv passages that keep the band and their fans off-balance. As David Fricke notes in his four-star review of Live at the Murat in Rolling Stone, Umphrey’s McGee “always have destination on their minds, even when they fly free.”
Live at the Murat is the latest feather in the cap of the dazzling sextet. The magical odds and sods The Bottom Half, released in the spring of this year, followed their highly touted spring 2006 studio release Safety In Numbers. Contrary to its name, The Bottom Half is a top-rate sequel to Safety In Numbers. The double album is full of spontaneity and intrigue, fresh ideas, and the kind of dazzling musicianship we have come to expect from Umphrey’s. With its outtakes, alternate versions, and other nifty bits, The Bottom Half reached #26 on Billboard’s coveted “Heatseakers” Chart and received high marks from the music press. HARP magazine noted “…[The Bottom Half delivers] creamy studio work infused by diabolical skill.”
UM has — since forming in the late ’90s in the South Bend, Indiana area — cultivated an impressive presence both live and in the studio, quite an accomplishment when considering their humble roots. Cummins, Bayliss, bassist Ryan Stasik and original drummer Mike Mirro all studied at the University of Notre Dame near South Bend, Indiana, while percussionist Andy Farag at the South Bend branch of Indiana University. Cinninger, from Michigan, had a South Bend-based band called Ali Baba’s Tahini — as well as an open invitation to join Umphrey’s, which he accepted in the Fall of 2000. His addition, along with Kris Myers’ arrival in 2003, proved critical to the band’s success. Together, the gifted collective elevated its game.
Just a few months after their first gig in 1998, the band released their first album, the cleverly titled live document, Greatest Hits Volume III. Songs for Older Women and One Fat Sucka followed — as did their first ever DVD, Live from the Lake Coast. Building a reputation with the critically favored studio recording Local Band Does OK (not to be confused with Local Band Does Oklahoma — a live EP released soon after) and honing their groove as a stellar live act, by the time 2004’s Anchor Drops was released to raves, the buzz on Umphrey’s had grown loud. Rolling Stone tipped them in their Hot Issue and the Washington Post named the band “rock’s undisputed lord of sonic shape-shifting.” And if you need further convincing, one look at their second DVD—2005’s Wrapped Around Chicago: New Year’s at the Riv says it all: Umphrey’s had arrived.
The jam crowd hoisted the band up on their proverbial shoulders as heroes, heirs to the Phish throne. Fans reveled in Umphrey’s flair for inventive improvisation, incredible covers, and unpredictable moments. The band had also developed an uncanny visual language onstage that includes dozens of unspoken cues — a happy face, for example, symbolizes a major key, while a sad face indicates a minor one — that make their signature “jazz odysseys” and “Jimmy Stewarts” legendary on the jam scene. These cues manage to keep things tight and prevent their improv interludes from spiraling into hippie jam orbit. The band retains space, breath, and patience in performances, yet maintain masterly control in the process.
These days, Umphrey’s spends half the year on the road habitually flooring audiences. Their anything-goes musicianship, humor, and good-nature all make remarkable entertainment. The band shuttles between styles with precision, from straight-up pop and rock to jazz, prog-metal, and classical. If you can name it, chances are Umphrey’s can play it.
Live On Stage:
Who said that Bonnaroo doesn't book jambands anymore? These guys have something for everyone - even you metal fans out there. Here they are will Partin' Peeps...
For more on Umphrey's McGee head on over to their official website.
Monday, June 9, 2008