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)

In the Money

As the 2008 Major League Baseball season comes to a somewhat messy close, I can now lay claim to my sweetest victory in Fantasy Baseball. My Portland Prowlers are the 2008 Dump City Baseball League Champions. I’ve won fantasy leagues before, but this one is the most satisfying. It’s a salary-cap keeper league in its third year (this was my second year in the league.) And there’s actually some prize money to go along with my nifty trophy icon.

Matt Holliday earned his Franchise tag with an MVP-caliber year, but I’m more inclined to call Ian Kinsler my Team MVP. Had he not suffered a season-ending injury, his numbers could have been equal to Holliday’s, but what he did produce came at a fraction of the cost, and isn’t that what value is all about in a salary cap league? Kinsler, along with Jose Reyes and Joe Mauer, make up a great, inexpensive core to build upon for future success.

I made some great pickups during the year, including Kemp, Ludwick and Alexei Ramirez. Joey Votto was a key callup from my minor-league roster, and makes a good candidate to replace Teixeira, whom I lose to free agency. With five contracts available to sign new keepers, I like my chances to build a repeat contender on the cheap and augment with key free agent pitching. This will be key as I lose Zambrano and Lowe and have to figure out how to build a contending rotation around Burnett, Lester and Maine.

Indeed, pitching was the main obstacle to my championship. While I dominated in Wins and Ks, I spent most of the season in the basement in the other 3 categories. Most of my budget went to rotating relievers, getting saves from 13 different guys, with only Rivera giving me more than 13 saves. My ERA and WHIP were in the basement all year, but when my offense got going and put me in the lead, I found I was able to gain an extra 3 points in my ratios by benching some starters with bad matchups in the final few weeks.

The one drawback to this league is that it has dwindled to eight teams, leaving far too much talent available and therefore no incentive to deal with other owners. Much of this offseason will be spent trying to recruiit new players from the Bort, where we all met. I’ll update again in February when I have a better idea who I am keeping, and who I am defending my title against.

Just wanted to take a moment to bask in the glow of sweet victory. Now, I have a fantasy football dynasty to build.