The Random Jam Session

This looks like a good place for a jam
This looks like a good place for a jam

I arrived at a converted warehouse building in a neighborhood not far from home just after 5pm Saturday. I met up with Chance, drummer from the Bridgetown Saints, and started loading in my gear. All of the businesses in the building were hosting an open house, and Chance was putting together some musical entertainment for his friend Peter’s achitecture studio.

Our mutual friend and bandmate Joe had invited me to join in. Several of the Bridgetown Saints were there as well, and having jammed with them before, I came prepared to get my funk on. However this jam went in a completely different direction than I would have guessed. A guitarist by the name of John was also on hand and he led us through some great acoustic finger-pickin’ tunes. Saxman Greg added some beautiful chromatic harmonica. It was a very relaxed affair with people coming and going, but towards the end we had a full 8-piece band together.

I got a chance to lead the guys through Paul Simon’s “Have a Good Time,” which I sing with Jersey Rhythm Mafia. It’s an easy 3-chord groove that works well in pickup jams and even better when someone knows the backing vocal parts. I’m slowly but surely coming out of my shell as a lead vocalist and although I was a little too raspy for the high A in the third verse, the guys all thought it sounded alright.

The evening was a real confidence builder for me, and it showed in the way I sang and played with my own band at rehearsal the next day. I’m starting to enjoy the challenge of playing outside of my comfort zone and I look forward to more chances to see how I hold my own with new collaborators. It always amazes me how quickly a random assembly of musicians can find common ground. I have found quite a bit of common ground with the Bridgetown Saints and am really excited to join them on stage this Wednesday at the White Eagle. Come check it out if you’re in town.

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Shine on, Umphrey’s McGee

Umphreys Tonight! (photo by Ryan Carpernter)
Umphrey's Tonight! (photo by Ryan Carpernter)

This wouldn’t be much of a music blog if I didn’t tell you about my favorite bands, so I’ll start with my absolute favorite live band, Umphrey’s McGee. They just played last Friday at the Crystal Ballroom here in Portland, where they have established a high standard for outstanding performances. Whether or not this show met or exceeded that standard, by whatever criteria such things are judged, is a matter of some discussion on the Bort. I’ll forego that sort of nitpicking here and write instead about what sets Umphrey’s McGee apart from (and far beyond) most other touring bands.

Dale's view from the rail (photo by Dale Chapman)
At the Showbox in Seattle (photo by Dale Chapman)

They’re often labeled a jamband, and there is plenty of evidence to support the tag. They never play the same setlist twice. They play in many styles and move fluidly from one to the next. They play all of the big festivals and inspire fans to travel the country to see multiple shows. And, despite the best efforts of their fans to avoid comparisons, the influence of bands like Phish, moe. and Strangefolk is undeniable. However, once you get past the superficial similarities, you’ll find that the music of Umphrey’s McGee doesn’t sound much like any jamband you’ve ever heard.

The best phrase I have heard to describe Umphrey’s sound is “aggressive progressive.” The band writes complex compositions reminiscent of progressive rockers like Frank Zappa and King Crimson, without sacrificing lyricism and soul. Other songs can sound like pop songs, with weighty lyrics and memorable riffs, but developed well beyond the typical confines of a radio hit. In the studio and in performance, they make full use of accents, mixed meters, key changes, alternate chord progressions, and silence in a way that reminds me of Steely Dan’s finest work.

Brendan Bayliss (photo by Dale Chapman)
Brendan Bayliss (photo by Dale Chapman)

As with most “jambands,” Umphrey’s McGee is best experienced live in concert. They play with authority and precision, but not without emotion. One set can feature moments of deep funk, dank reggae, metal mayhem and uptempo electronica woven into the fabric of a song or as a transition from one song to another. Their improvisations are semi-planned, with a basic structure laid out in advance and on-stage direction guiding the creation of new music in the moment. Some of these moments develop into glorious peaks, some are quickly left behind for a new groove, and some are revisited at future shows, given lyrics, even worked into full songs in the studio after being born on stage.

This is not a band for everyone. They throw a lot at you in a short period of time, so it’s been hard for me to win my friends over. But my buddy Scott enjoyed the Crystal Ballroom show more than the last one he saw at Roseland two years ago. And I even caught my wife singing along to Liquid in the car. For me, they do everything right. The encore of Shine On You Crazy Diamond puts last week’s show near the top of my list, but I think my favorite Umphrey’s McGee show will always be my next one.

\nnnnnn/ Too much rock for one hand (photo by Dale Chapman)
Too much rock for one hand (photo by Dale Chapman)