The Crystal Ballroom is rife with anticipation. Today's S2 event has left the band as well as the fans ready to rock one of the most infamous venues on the west coast. McMenamin's Crystal has hosted rock shows for over 40 years, everyone from the Grateful Dead to the Roots. The room itself is something of an anomaly. The stage is tucked into a corner of the ballroom, the floor is spring loaded and moves with the crowd, the walls are plastered with murals containing secrets that only the best of conditions can reveal. This was my 4th experience with Umphrey's at the Crystal, my 8th in Portland proper. Umphrey's has yet to attempt a multi-night run in a Pacific Northwest city, though I suspect Portland would be a likely victim. As it was, we had to make due with 3-nights worth of energy packed into one convenient, single-serving evening.
The boys opened with 1348, the final track off of their 2009 release Mantis. Upon first hearing the album this was the song that struck me as the quintessential Umph tune, what I'd come to expect from their studio material. They played a true-to-form version of the song, no jams but technical proficiency in abundance. Next up was Uncommon from the album Anchor Drops, an amusing self-depreciating little ditty (“something about me stinks, something about me smells”). As the crowd was getting warmed up to the band, Jefferson Waful was getting his lights warmed up to the unique challenge presented to all lighting engineers who brave the strange architecture of the Rose City's oldest dance hall. Uncommon finished sans-jam making way for the Bottom Half and its mandatory “Jimmy Stewart.” Myers and Stasik started pounding out a lethal funk line that got the floors bouncing in a big way. The dual guitar attack danced back and forth between riffs worthy of a 70s porn and licks that would make most Hair Metal rockers proud. Cinninger got everyone going along with a little “soul clapping” before steering the improvisational odyssey right into the classic White Man's Moccasins, an opportunity to show off the groups ability to navigate strange and inconsistent time signatures. A prog rock anthem if I've ever heard one.
The heavy chunk-a-chunk of Push The Pig followed after a brief pause in which Bayliss took an opportunity to elucidate on the band's excitement about the show they were washing the crowd in (“we've been looking forward to this one for a long time people”). As if to validate, “Sound Caresser” Kevin Browning paced back and forth in the center aisle of the venue managing the soundboard from a remotely linked tablet PC making sure that our ears received the very best of treatments. Push The Pig housed a smooth hip-hop based Jazz Odyssey once again affording the audience the stable dance beat needed to get the floor rippling. After another brief pause the band launched into Miss Tinkle's Overture, a favorite of any guitar-virtuoso worshipper. The song thundered through a rocked-out jam before closing to explosive applause. Any other band might have seen this as a good place to take a setbreak but Umphrey's had other plans. A groovy 14-minute Much Obliged spiraled its way back into the remainder of The Bottom Half, bringing the curtain down on the first set.
Set two got right down to business with the fan favorite Divisions. One of the oldest Umphrey's songs, its soft string melodies have earned the band many a convert. It frequently serves as bookends for a set, being divided itself into two sections just as it was last night. The first portion melted away into a dark, metallic “Stew.” The rock horns came out in full force as the audience followed the band further down the rabbit hole of their improvisational creation, only to be bathed in the sunshine of a brief return to the first section of Divisions moments later. Leaving it unfinished still, the band segued right into a slow building 2x2. Patience payed off as the song reached its alternating soaring heights and dark valleys.
Waful continued to burn retinas with his lights, having gotten himself more than comfortable with the shape of the room. It paid off for the 17 minute disco-beat throw-down that was, is, and always shall be known as Wappy Sprayberry. While the name leaves something to be desired, the pumping rhythm leaves nothing in its wake but sweaty bodies grooving down. The endning slid seamlessly into an energetic rendition of Fussy Dutchman, fingers flying as Bayliss and Cinninger passed the noodled core riff back and forth. Cummins did an excellent job of matching their speed and dexterity as he sounded off on the keyboards, fluttering lightly behind the distorted facade. I was particularly happy with the choice to include Gulf Stream as the next song on the setlist. I left Portland 6 months ago after calling it my home for 5 years. An Umph show at the Crystal is as good a homecoming as I could ask for. As the lyrics say, “All my friends are here right now, this is what we came to do.” Couldn't put it better myself. Spirits climbed alongside guitars, peaking with a pitch-perfect cover of the Who's Baba O'Reilly (“you're all fucked up!”, screams Bayliss). Reaching the end of the set, a quick little jaunt through Kabump took us back home to the triumphant conclusion of Divisions. Arms spread to the sky, it was accepted as though it were a blessing from the Rock Gods.
As the band returned to the stage for an encore, we were given a rare treat. Andy Farag climbed out of the pit that is his percussion world, Ketel One in hand, to rock the mic on Snoop Dogg's Ain't No Fun. Absolutely priceless. Following this encore, the band left the stage as usual but the house lights did not come up. Bass guitar champion Ryan Stasik walked out, asked if we wanted another song, and received his answer with the crowd's full intensity. The rest of the boys returned to the stage and finished with fervor, unleashing the title track from their new album, Mantis. This is definitely a song that has grown and developed radically over the past 10 months of road experience. Like Divisions before it, Mantis will surely help to cull the interest of a new plethora of Umphreaks. This show followed up a private jam session held earlier that day at the Crystal, the second installment of Umphrey's Stew Art (S2) series. I would suggest that the band's opportunity to interact with a portion of the evening's audience prior to the main event contributed heavily to the quality of the evening's performance. Look for a full review of the (S2) event with pictures early next week.