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.
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.
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.