Get it while it’s hot people! Yep, Umphrey’s McGee is as fiery as ever, and was hot as blazes in the ragin’ cajun and cool as a cucumber House of Blues in New Orleans. After a wild day and a half of Bourbon Street seafood, cover band, stripper and overdosed slushy shenanigans (I’m talking to you Hurricane and Hand Grenade), Umphrey’s made it clear that this evening would be a little more than your average Wednesday night in The Big Easy.
As the day began, clouds played jokes, offering false promise of cooler temperatures than the previous one, yet my clothes clung to me, damp in the thick bayou air. A community of Umphreaks from sea to sea and all the middle ground in between gathered in air conditioned saloons, rooftop swimming pools and plush hotel rooms to trade battle stories of a life dedicated to the road warrior bards Umphrey’s McGee. Drinks flowed, jokes drew laughter and friendships, new and old, were celebrated as show time steadily approached. If one looked closely, walked into the right place at the right time, they might have even rubbed elbows with the stars of this sonic circus who were out and about mingling with their dedicated supporters.
This show comes only three short days after a streak of staggering performances over the weekend during Summercamp (or perhaps more appropriately sUMmercamp) Music Festival in the deep, treeless cornfields of Chillicothe, IL; all of which, I feel will be remembered fondly in Umphrey’s lore. However, in true UM style, on this clammy night in New Orleans, there would not be a single song repeated from that four show festival weekend, but the energy exuded by the band was strikingly similar. As the improg titans took the stage they were met by an excited, cheering audience who reflected the love and dedication that the band has put into truly wowing their fans.
“Red Tape,” a tune off of 2009 released Mantis, started the evening’s festivities with gusto as guitar overlord Jake Cinninger stepped up to the plate for some wily licks during a couple of the song’s solo opportunities. The laid back, syncopated “Professor Wormbog” followed, living up to it’s impressively demanding timing and wowing me as much as it did the first time I heard it. Picking the pace back up with the rock ‘n’ roll intervention theme song “Got Your Milk (Right Here),” the band soared as Cinninger traded country riffs with ‘Sweet Fingers’ Joel Cummins as they stole off into a small improvisation that segued seamlessly into the brooding “White Man’s Moccasins.” Taking a trip down memory lane, the band stole off into the jazz/funk bounce back number “Kat’s Tune” showcasing the band’s more high-browed chops. “Intentions Clear” gave the band another opportunity to open up into a hot groove that built steadily before dropping into “Mail Package.” The supercharged finale of “Package” had the audience in a frenzy as light designer Jefferson Waful lit fireworks with his Mac III light cannons, making the House of Blues sparkle as the first set flared to it’s end.
With a perfectly placed hotel room across the street, free drinks beckoned us for set break as we scurried off to use our time wisely. Returning just in time to snag our spot, Umphrey’s returned to the stage and laid into a blistering version of “Ringo.” Creeping along, the jam section morphed into an eerie, soulful rendition of Bill Frisell’s jazzy “Heart It Through the Grapevine.” Cinninger again bared his soul, lacing fiery fills throughout the ambling tune which jammed back into a tease of the “Ringo” outro as they invited New Orleans native son and blues organ extraordinaire Ivan Neville to throw down a filthy jam into the outro. Saluting one of the band’s most ardent fan’s 150th show, they dedicated “Nemo” to him which book-ended a stellar, majestic improvisation that shook the House and left me with goose bumps. A masterfully executed “Higgins” found another energy explosion with it’s high intensity second half before the band invited opening act Brock Butler of Perpetual Groove to the stage to sulk through the moody “Push the Pig.” Finally, paying respects to their predecessors, Umphrey’s transformed themselves into jazz rock powerhouse Steely Dan as they did rock star justice to the tune to reach the bittersweet end of the set. Finally, nodding to all the friendly, fun loving Umphreaks who live for their next Umphrey’s experience and who can show up anywhere in the country and start one hell of a party, the band returned to the stage to encore with the driving funk “Get In the Van.”
Umphrey’s McGee is many things. It is of course a band, for the members it is a livelihood, for the fans, it is a community of truly wonderful people, a traveling thrill ride that leaves so many begging incessantly for more. On Wednesday, the Big Easy exemplified all of these sides of Umphrey’s as they delighted us with another wonderful episode of their musical adventures.