The Lake Tahoe area ski resorts have received upwards of 800 inches of snow this season but after Umphrey’s McGee blazed through the Montbleu Resort Casino and Spa Showroom last Friday I wouldn’t have been shocked to awaken in my hotel room, slowly peel back the blackout drapes, only to see that they’d melted it all away.
Nearly 18 years ago a good friend urged me to check out this crazy new band from Indiana that he felt was right in my wheelhouse. Before the show I texted him. It was finally happening. Normally when seeing a band for the first time, I’ll listen to a cross section of their music and research them a bit, but I decided to attend this show without any preconceived ideas. In hindsight letting this talented sextet take me wherever they chose to go was the perfect first experience, because it seems to me that’s exactly what an Umphrey’s show is all about.
The opening 18 minutes set the tone for the evening as front man Brendan Bayliss slung a Les Paul over his shoulder and began playing “Tango Mike” as the rest of the band tuned up, eventually joining him and launching into “Phil’s Farm.” I was immediately struck by the number of musical styles combined in just the first 5 minutes and realized I’d boarded some weird space jam ship that could go anywhere, at any speed, at any time.
As the set weaved through energetic and creative jam sections and bridges, I started thinking about the band itself. As musicians, they brought heaping musical abilities to the stage to make all this noise come together so spectacularly. I could spend this entire column espousing all the cool things each of them did in two and a half hours on stage. Yet I couldn’t really come up with what was distinct about Umphrey’s McGee’s “sound”, and then I noticed the bass drum adorned with “UM.”
Now stay with me here. Not knowing the origin of their unusual name I thought maybe, it’s an inside joke and those in the know flip the letters to “MU” for “Mash Up.” I heard so many distinct references to other bands in section after section, and even multiple bands layered together; Genesis, Metallica, DMB, The Dead, 311, ELP just to name a fraction, and I truly admired how the shapeshifting chameleon ensemble could pull off simultaneously combining them without compromising the original. It’s a rare talent indeed.
So broad and cohesive were the abilities displayed by Messrs. Bayliss, Cinninger, Cummins, Farag, Myers, and Stasik it felt as if you could call out any song tied to rock music (hell, maybe anything) and they could play it. Not just cover, but also come up with their own composition in the style of the band called out or blend it with an entirely different band’s style. That mastery was clearly on display with the uninterrupted three song run which kicked off with a cover (and dedicated to some friends recently married in Tahoe) of David Bowie’s “Golden Years” moved to “FF” on a downbeat before drifting into “Sociable Jimmy” to close the main show.
I texted my friend who’d sensed something special 18 years earlier, to own the truth. I’m an idiot for having waited. Thankfully, there was still room on that weird space jam ship for one more and I’m hopeful they’ve many more galaxies to explore.
Set 1: Tango Mike > Phil’s Farm, Piranhas > Blue Echo* > Speak Up, Dear Lord > The Crooked One, Hot for Teacher, Wizard Burial Ground Set 2: Plunger > Uncommon, Miami Virtue > August, Golden Years > FF > Sociable Jimmy Encore: Remind Me
*Jake Cinninger on keys