It had been a while since I went to another show besides Phish, especially in the jammy vein of things. Years ago I went to see moe and wasn’t very impressed. It was good, well played, but it also had a certain “improv by numbers” feel to me. That night anyway, every song fell into the same pattern, a verse or two and then a round-robin kind of jam sequence to finish things up. I haven’t even bothered to go to any TAB shows recently because they just don’t do it for me like Phish. Frankly, Phish is magic, those four guys are wizards and when they get together, more often than not, something special happens.
So it was not without some trepidation that I went to see Umphrey’s McGee close out their Chicago run this past weekend. I’ve scouted them out for at least the last ten years, listened to the podcast pretty regularly, and felt like I had a pretty good idea what was coming. I won’t say I was blown away, but I also wasn’t disappointed, not by a long shot.
A definite plus was the venue, the Riviera. I’ve seen some great acts at the Riv (Wilco, PJ Harvey, Trey, Los Lobos to name a few) and I’ve found the sound to be decent, the sight lines really good and for a Chicago northsider like myself, incredibly convenient. Unfortunately, security was a bit slow, not tight per se, but not enough guards to do the ceremonial pat down to get us in the door. It wasn’t polar vortex cold while waiting, but it was pretty damn cold. By the time I got in the show had already started which always pisses me off. I hate missing that opening energy spike.
Like I said, I’ve been to quite a few shows at the Riv and I can’t remember the place being that packed. It was crazy! I could barely move, let alone dance. I did manage to make a little room for myself, but it was well into the first set before I could even move my feet more than a few inches. By the time they were playing 2nd Self, I was decidedly into the groove.
The groove was particularly tight too. Umphrey’s puts out a lot of energy. As I heard a bunch of fans screaming, they rage. A great example of this (and a bit of whimsy too) is the second set opener, Der Bluten Kat. It clocks in at 27 minutes, though there are definitive movements within the song, well worth your time. Compared to Phish it was a hard rock kind of feel. The focus for most of the songs was speed and musicianship, with a sprinkle of funk. The dual guitar give off a great sound, at times it reminded me of bands like Built to Spill and even Funkadelic, with less funk.
I am biased against the double drummer, however. For as much texture and power the twin guitars brings, I feel like the dual precussion is overkill, especially in a small room like the Riv. The guitars were able to work over the drums, but the keyboards were pretty much lost in the mix. Later on the recordings it sounded better, but live, not so much luck. The other thing about the double drummer and definitely a Fishman bias is the double drummer solo. Dear god, really? I’m sorry, there is nothing remotely interesting to me about two guys playing drums for 5 minutes. It makes me feel like I’m in a parking lot somewhere.
Overall though, a really good show. Unlike the podcasts, Umphrey’s reigned it in from time to time and just played really solid 5-6 minute songs, including a couple of nice acoustic songs. Also their choice of covers is from that same well that makes Phish covers so interesting, if not a little more off-beat. Umphrey’s played a couple of tunes that I remember distictly from my fm radio listening days. Bob Seger’s Night Moves was a transport to an earlier Midwest time and The Cars Just What I Needed had me grinning from ear to ear. The Chicago-centric Cherub Rock with Jimmy Chamberlin sitting in was a nice home town touch. Now, when was that Summer Camp Festival again?