Umphrey’s McGee played an overwhelming, often dazzling
sold-out show at the Blind Pig on Thursday night, clarifying for a
small group of Michigan’s jam-band faithful why they are one
of the most exciting new groups in the ever-expanding scene. The
riff-heavy rock of the Chicago six-piece is a refreshing return to
the genre’s roots at a time when the recent surge in
popularity of jam music is mostly attributable to the success of
party acts like Particle and Karl Denson who focus solely on
creating a groove.

Mira Levitan
Just 15 more minutes, mom! (Courtesy of Street Gold)

Pioneers of the genre like The Allman Brothers, Phish and moe.
are so satisfying because they blend nasty and sunny grooves with
intricate compositions and excellent songwriting. Umphrey’s
McGee certainly aspires to write and perform music that involves
all three of these elements, and on Thursday night, they almost
succeeded.

Their first set bombarded the listener with intricacy. The
band’s sound, led by the guitars of Jake Cinninger and
Brendan Bayliss, was an intense technical workout reminiscent of
the prog-rock acts of the 1970’s. Cinninger was all over the
fretboard, offering lightning-fast licks as the band moved almost
frantically through composed sections.

It might have seemed like improvising, but Umphrey’s knew
exactly where they were going. The set grew more entertaining as
the room got more sweltering. A well-placed cover of The
Beatles’ “She Came In Through The Bathroom
Window” relieved those who felt lost by the band’s
virtuosity.

The second set was easier to digest because it focused on
building the band’s beloved groove. “Hurt Bird
Bath” quickly evolved into something dark and fast, drummer
Kris Myers, bassist Ryan Stasik and keyboardist Joel Cummins
providing the perfect foundation for Bayliss and Cinninger to go
nuts.

For many, it was true jam-band bliss. The instruments were so
locked in and the solos spiraling and careening so perfectly that
the crowd couldn’t help but lose themselves, only to
ecstatically realize 10 minutes later that they were still enjoying
exactly the kind of stuff they came to hear. The groove increases
one’s attention span, and by the time the familiar beat of
Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain” peaked through,
Umphrey’s McGee deservedly had the sweaty crowd right where
they wanted them.

Displaying outstanding musicianship, inventive compositions and
a knack for building the bright, funky or sinister grooves,
Umphrey’s McGee proved why they currently have the most buzz
in a scene that thrives on word of mouth. What the band lacked was
memorable songs. Maybe knowing a song is what makes it memorable,
but the melodies and choruses that bring closure to a
instrumental-heavy set are what separate the good jam rock acts
from the best.

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