Fourteen months ago, on Halloween, Umphrey’s McGee played one of the most impressive shows I’d ever seen. The buzz surrounding the event was undeniable and the actual show was religious. At the time the band was on the precipice of some major changes. Light design artist Jefferson Waful was unofficially invited to join the band at which point they overhauled the light rigs with full motion LED’s, they were about to release ‘Mantis,’ their first album that had not been road tested or heard by the public before its release and the Halloween show was billed as their first appearance at the historic Warfield Theatre, a step up in capacity from their last stint at the Fillmore. On that fateful Halloween night, they introduced their idea of mash-up songs, taking two or more songs and, like a DJ, mixing them together to create something original. The show that night was like nothing I or anyone else in that building had ever seen before. To be blunt, the San Francisco Halloween show in 2008 was more successful than anyone there could’ve ever imagined and, in my opinion, began a new era in the Umphrey’s McGee dynasty.
In between that time, the economy has had huge problems and one of the most successful touring jam bands of all time returned to the scene. The quality of the performances, as per usual, continues to reach new amazing heights and the band has continued their brutal touring schedule religiously, but they have had to be creative to get around these issues. After fourteen months, their return to San Francisco was awaited and overdue.
The Ballroom at the Regency Theatre played host to Umphrey’s McGee’s monumental return to the City by the Bay. It is an intricate victorian style room with an oval domed ceiling that doubled as a canvas for Waful (the now official lighting designer), which he painted intricately throughout the entire night. The floor was packed, not quite to capacity, but a cozy atmosphere to rub up against some fellow music lovers as everyone danced the beautiful night away. As they took the stage, the exhilarated crowd made them remember why they need to come to San Francisco more often and after they opened the show with the enthralling Mantis released rocker “1348,” the crowd were thoroughly reminded why we wanted Umphrey’s to come back.
The energy flowed as they segued from the end of “1348” into the opening notes of “Much Obliged” which started the improv inside of it with at least ten minutes of funky jam before the ending segued right into the anthem of the forlorn unrepresented average citizen: “2nd Self.” A quick break for some expressions of gratitude was all the time they allotted for a pause as they set forth into “Ringo,” about guitarist Jake Cinninger’s cat. Eighteen minutes and a huge funk jam later they dropped into our story of the day, “Hangover.” “Fussy Dutchman” followed displaying extremely tight interplay between keyboard guru Joel Cummins and guitar ace Jake Cinninger. To end the set, they pulled out the Steely Dan classic “Reelin’ in the Years” from up their sleeve, another one of tightest, most precise bands to have graced rock and roll.
Set two opened with one of the fanciest “Nothing Too Fancy” renditions I’ve ever seen. An intense slow build, just hinting at the bass line leads the audience into a dual guitar dance party pilgrimage lacing country guitar licks over a driving rhythm section. Without finishing it they jammed into the intricate intro of “Divisions.” The song included a slow groove featuring the whistling skills of Cinninger before heading into the heart wrenching section that makes one miss all of the important people who aren’t there. It was truly emotional. “Plunger” followed which jammed into a groovy feel-good “Pequod” before building into a major “Jimmy Stewart” (their name for a structured improvisational jam) that included teases of “Roundabout” from progressive veterans Yes and showed the precision that guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger really have with each other and the rest of the band as bassist Ryan Stasik locked in with little drummer boy on steroids Kris Myers and percussion specialist Andy Farag to carry the jam back through to the end of “Plunger.”
To release some of the tension and lower the intensity for a few minutes they switched gears into Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Chant,” and even it got the treatment with a nice jam and some Fleetwood Mac teases of “Rhiannon.” The jam ended with Joel playing almost exactly the “Preamble” and sure enough it dropped right into the music box intro to “Mantis” the inspiring prog rock ballad. In the middle of Mantis, where it would usually drop off to the spaced out Floydesque guitar line by Cinninger, they dropped seemlessly into the fitting “Bright Lights, Big City.” “Bright Lights” headed forcefully into an intensively peaking jam with fingers and notes and heads and hair and people flying everywhere uncontrollably before answering the call and dropping with gusto back into the second half of “Mantis” to truly finish out the set in grand style.
Finally, returning to the stage after only a moment or two, they re-manned their stations and launched the orchestral rocket “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” into the night and as far as I know, they never came back. So, here I am, the next day in Reno, trying to patiently await another glorious night with Umphrey’s McGee.
As Bayliss belts out in Mantis, I too believe there’s something here worth dying for... and because of that, it feels like such a wonderful time to be alive.
Set 1: 1348, Much Obliged > 2nd Self, Ringo, Hangover, Fussy Dutchman, Reeling In The Years.
Set 2: Nothing Too Fancy^ > Divisions, Plunger > "Groove Pequod"^^ > Jimmy Stewart^^^ > Plunger, Rastaman Chant^^^^ > Preamble/Mantis > Bright Lights, Big City > Mantis.
Encore: Miss Tinkle's Overture
^ Unfinished ^^ No relation to Groove Holmes, but Pequod played over uptempo groove. ^^^ Roundabout jam ^^^^ Rhiannon teases