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Versatile Umphrey’s McGee rock the Bend

Joey Kuhn | Monday, September 8, 2008

While you were screaming your head off and throwing your hands into the air at the pep rally on Friday, another group of people was doing the same thing in St. Patrick’s Park, just north of South Bend. This group, however, was giving it up not for the Notre Dame football team, but for a band called Umphrey’s McGee.

After a slew of uninspired videos at the pep rally, Umphrey’s McGee was a refreshing breath of air. Their sound was constantly morphing and evolving, going from Styx-influenced stadium rock to psychedelic waves of sound effortlessly and seamlessly. The band members communicated these transitions to each other with hand signals, which somehow seemed oddly appropriate, what with their baseball hats and sporty attire. They didn’t dress like the stereotypical hippie/jam band, contrary to expectations.

Umphrey’s whole style seemed to be about “contrary to expectations.” They were always doing something surprising, and the surprises were pleasant. For instance, what started out sounding like their song “Higgins” actually turned into a stellar rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe.” They also covered “Africa” by Toto.

But the real strength of their show was not in their covers, but in their own unique sound and their epic jam sessions.

The band is hard to put into any genre; they could be described as alternative or progressive rock, but they had moments in which they sounded like reggae, techno, acid rock and even a little hip-hop. The chord progressions are quirky and engaging, the lyrics are intelligent and meaningful, and the six-member depth of the band allows for intricate song arrangements.

Many of their faster songs feature helter-skelter, stop-and-start rhythms crafted by their two percussionists, Andy Farag and Chris Meyers. These two used both traditional drum sets and more unusual percussion devices, such as bongos and cowbells, to achieve their sound.

The two guitarists, Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger, also employed a wide variety of strange effects, sometimes lengthening every note until they built on one another into some monumental chord, or sometimes damping their strings to sound almost like a ukulele. Backed up by the outstanding rhythm section of Joel Cummins on keyboards and Ryan Stasik on bass, the sextet was unstoppable.

Umphrey’s true strength unquestionably comes from their improvisational prowess. This is where they really wowed the crowd. Their songs weren’t really songs anymore, so much as pieces of sonic art being created before your very eyes. It was easy to get carried away with Cinninger as he felt out each note, often closing his eyes and letting his musical instincts guide him.

As everyone who’s ever been to a concert knows, though, the actual music isn’t the only important aspect of the concert experience. The audience, the people surrounding you, is just as important to the overall effect. Of course, most of the crowd was chemically induced, but that in no way detracted from the show. In fact, the slew of peaceful stoners and ex-hippies actually made the concert more fun. At least if the music ever got boring (which it didn’t), there was some interesting people-watching. One guy had a scooped-out half watermelon rind on his head with glow necklaces sticking out of it. He looked like a giant neon daddy-long legs walking around in the crowd and spreading love, giving glow sticks to everyone. There were none of the pushy, overbearing fans one usually runs into at concerts.

Getting into the venue was a long and arduous ordeal, but that was probably the only truly negative part of the entire night. The temperature was pleasant and cool, and the sky was cloudless. At the end of the three-hour concert, which Umphrey’s McGee divided into two sets, the techies even played the Notre Dame Victory March over the loudspeakers, capping off a near-perfect night with a little Irish spirit.

Umphrey’s McGee has played in South Bend regularly for the past two years, making this concert their third in an annual series of concerts on Notre Dame’s opening weekend. They come to South Bend often because several of the band members attended or have ties to Notre Dame, including Bayliss, who lived in Keenan Hall as an undergraduate.

Umphrey’s sound may not be for everyone; if you don’t enjoy complex, carefully orchestrated song arrangements and mind-blowing, 15-minute long jam sessions, you might want to look somewhere else, such as mainstream radio. But for everyone else, if you’re around the Bend next year, don’t miss Umphrey’s McGee.