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Umphrey’s McGee returns to motherland

Patrick Griffin and Joey Kuhn | Wednesday, April 22, 2009

While you were taking off your mustard-yellow “The Shirt” after the Blue and Gold game, music enthusiasts across South Bend were breaking out their tie-dye shirts. Among the many prominent alumni who returned for this weekend were the members of homegrown band Umphrey’s McGee. The jam band performed to a packed Morris Performing Arts Center last Saturday evening as part of their summer tour promoting their most recent album “Mantis.”It became evident once Umphrey’s McGee took the stage that their technical and intense music style was highly appreciated by Saturday night’s patrons. Fans at the concert, perhaps influenced by a little more than adrenaline and enthusiasm, provided for an energetic and rowdy atmosphere. Many in the boisterous crowd spastically danced, jumped around, and sang along for the entire concert. Umphrey’s front man Brendan Bayliss returned the love, remarking “It’s good to be home,” in reference to the band’s motherland. The three-hour long concert featured epic improvisational odysseys, with each song averaging about nine minutes long. Umphrey’s style of live play has been compared to jam bands such as the Grateful Dead and Phish, although the band members cite much more wide-ranging musical influences. It was very easy to discern, from the show’s opening notes, that every member of Umphrey’s McGee is an incredibly skilled musician. In the concert’s opening number, “Glory,” guitarist Jake Cinninger set the tone with a searing guitar solo. Although guitar solos were most frequent, every member of the band took solos at various points in the concert. Guitarists Bayliss and Cinninger sent the rambunctious crowd into a frenzy with their two part, harmonic guitar solos. The band’s dual guitar parts allowed for these synchronized jams as well as solo “conversations,” where the guitarists traded riffs back and forth. Umphrey’s percussion section included both a full drum set, played by Kris Myers, as well as a second ensemble including bongos, djembes, cowbells and chimes, played by Andy Farag. The two combined for a unique fusion of hard rock drumming and exotic beats. Often, the band’s numbers featured helter-skelter rhythms and unusual time signatures. Myers’s drum set included a double bass pedal, which allowed him to use both feet for the set’s bass drum and truly lived up to the rock-and-roll cliché “gut-busting.” Lead singer Bayliss’ vocals were satisfactory but bland on many of songs, and they were sometimes hard to hear over the playing of the band. Umphrey’s main focus has always been their instrumental prowess, not their lyrics. There was a noticeable lack of singing for much of the concert, but the band spoke loud enough through their impassioned playing. Still, a few more proper songs could have enhanced crowd participation and broken up the endless stream of solos.One of the greatest possible complaints against this concert is one that is really a complaint against the jam band genre itself. Umphrey’s McGee’s style is often described as “progressive improvisation,” so naturally, their concerts are going to lack the structure of traditional, three-minute songs with little to no variation from the studio versions. Instead, their songs flow smoothly into one another with almost no breaks and are heavily dominated by solos. These characteristics, however, can be either positive or negative, depending on personal preference.It is impossible to discuss the full aesthetics of the concert without mentioning the spectacular light displays. The crew employed all forms of neon spotlights, fog machines and multi-color stage lights, as well as swirling pattern lights on the backdrop. These were synchronized with the music for an all-encompassing psychedelic experience. The effect was probably the closest thing one can find today (without actually being on acid) to the famous “acid tests” of the 1960s. The visual display further amplified the energy and excitement of the crowd.While the band members refrained from talking very much between songs, at one point Bayliss started talking about how his dad had met U2’s Bono at the Master’s Tournament the week before. He said that they had gotten to talking about Umphrey’s McGee, and then he announced that U2’s guitarist The Edge was present and wanted to play with the band. Apparently, though, “The Edge” wanted to play drums, not guitar. The confused crowd cheered as an Edge lookalike, Steve Krojniewski of Ali Baba’s Tahini, took the stage and played drums for one song. Although he was not really a U2 member, Krojniewski played a mean drum set. With him, the band proceeded to cover The Beatles’ “Birthday” in honor of one of the band members’ friends, showing their sense of humor and versatility of musical styles.Although the crowd was energetic and the band played a lively show, the atmosphere was kept somewhat subdued by the security staff at the Morris. The assigned seating prohibited fans from moving around much, but everybody still managed to have a good time where they were standing. If you’re bummed that you missed Saturday night’s righteous jam session, though, keep your eyes out for future shows. Umphrey’s McGee performs in the Bend often, including regular fall shows in St. Patrick’s Park.