By Mark Miller
Coming off a decade in which they were generally regarded as the best live band in the business – even supplanting primary influence Phish – the perpetually performing Umphrey's McGee are right back on the road in early 2010, just two weeks after bringing down the house in hometown Chicago for yet another memorable New Year's Eve run. The new decade – and year – brings much promise for Umph's as the latter half of 2009 finally saw the band successfully integrating material from their critically acclaimed album Mantis into their highly creative setlists that are the anchor of their endlessly energetic live shows, the meat of Umph's existence. Mantis, having been originally crafted in the studio exclusively, saw often awkward results when the songs were played live earlier in '09, but being the amazingly resourceful band that Umph's is, they were eventually able to incorporate the emotionally intricate Mantis material into their improv-charged live shows.
Umphrey's McGee’s first ever performance at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco (01.16.10) marked their first show in SF since the two-night stand of Halloween 2008. The Regency is a step down from the Warfield, where Umph's had originally been booked, both in terms of aesthetics and acoustical integrity, but a compromise was acceptable for a chance to see yet another Umph's show, which always has the potential to be stellar.
Fellow Chicagoans Cornmeal opened the show with their jazzy take on bluegrass, led by fetching fiddler Allie Kral. Umphrey's opened to raucous cheers with “1348,” an energetic Mantis track that announced the band's presence, though it was nothing spectacular. Following the track, guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss noted how long it had been since Umph's had played San Francisco, and pledged, "We're going to make up for it."
“Much Obliged” followed, with Bayliss's pointed lyrics: “Swallow up your pride, be glad they even know your name.” “Obliged” then yielded to the first jamming of the evening, venturing into spaces both heavy and dark, however the jam never stretched out to the memorable lengths of the 3/25/09 Tulsa, OK version.
“2nd Self” continued the laid-back approach the band chose to open the show with and it was a standard version. Guitarist/vocalist Jake Cinninger's heavenly-heavy-soulful epic “Ringo” was the first standout track of the evening – and as it turns out, of the first set, allowing some of Cinninger's band mates a chance to strut their stuff, including a tight Kris Myers drum break and a sweet Joel Cummins synth solo that played off of the “Ringo” heavy-metal section that resulted in some the best improv of the evening.
Following “Ringo,” Cinninger noted that there was “another funk song” on the setlist at his feet, and sure enough, the band busted out “Hangover” with its “Break out the booty wax, it's Saturday night” call to arms (or to some part of the body).
Funk gave way to prog for the cascading exchanges between Cinninger, Bayliss and Cummins juxtaposed with pulse-pounding exchanges, all on display during “The Fussy Dutchman,” which began with a choice tease of the sublime Peanuts' “Linus and Lucy” theme. A pedestrian cover version of “Reelin' In the Years” finished the set on a lackluster note (this from a standout cover band), and Bayliss's promise was still yet to be delivered.
From the opening bell of the second set, things improved considerably, with perfectly placed opener “Nothing Too Fancy.” Its anticipatory buildup that launches into infectious springy chords alternating with nimble picking segued sympathetically into “Divisions,” Bayliss's multi-layered masterpiece that blends both classical prog elements and lasting emotional fulfillment that stands alone as Umph's definitive song. The percussion break in the song also displayed the contrasting styles of Myers on traditional drums and Andy Farag laying down the tribal beats. This was a non-divided “Divisions,” allowing fans to swallow whole this 20-minute musical mouthful in one sitting.
The twisting, shifting rhythms of “Plunger” followed and its segue into the sinister and rarely-played “The Pequod” featured an acid-drenched jam of the opening riff from the Yes classic “Roundabout” until returning to the wistfully serene portion that concludes “Plunger.”
Bob Marley's “Rastaman Chant” followed, and while it didn't seem to fit the set (despite some cool “Rhiannon” – Fleetwood Mac – teases), it was an opportunity to get a beer, hit the john or pack a bowl in anticipation of the “Preamble” > “Mantis” > “Bright Lights, Big City” > “Mantis” mash-up to follow. “Mantis” deftly balances ambition and haunting emotions in a song that is fast challenging the crown of the aforementioned “Divisions.” “Mantis” also displays the versatility of keyboardist Cummins, as he bounced from organ to piano to violin-triggering synth.
1980's throwback “Bright Lights” was a fitting choice for the band's return to San Francisco, and the shape-shifting jamming that sprung from the composed section of the song was the second set apogee before the emotional denouement of “Mantis” wrapped things up, and further reaffirmed the successful integration of Mantis (the album) material into Umph's present setlists.
The encore was another Umph's staple, “Miss Tinkle's Overture,” with its pseudo-classical mocking crashing up against fiery machine-gun rhythms and a jam lead by underrated bassist Ryan Stasik, who has co-composed many of the band's best songs. While this show wasn't on the level of Umphrey's best San Francisco appearances (that would be the three-night stands in May 2005 and February 2008), it was a more-than-adequate “make-up show.” Though it was hardly necessary, the show also reiterated Umph's mastery of “improg;” that is improv focusing on spontaneously creating progressive structures rather than merely settling for repetitive dance/funk grooves. That, coupled with the improvement in the live Mantis material, gives Umphreaks and new fans a lot to look forward to in 2010.
Umphrey’s guitarist/vocalist Jake Cinninger