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Umphrey’s McGee shreds all night at the Palace

Umphrey's McGee
Photo: Chris Monaghan

Some argue that the prog and jam scenes can be excessive and overindulgent. Long jams, complicated song structures, and improvisational excess can be the norm. As a longtime fan of these genres, I would agree that at times there is truth to this. One key then, for Prog and Jam bands, is to strike a balance- indulgence without overindulgence, long jams that engage, and song structures that impress without confusing the audience. To their credit, prog and jam band musicians are often some of the best at their respective crafts, combining virtuosity with creativity to create interesting sounds and spectacles. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but for believers, there’s nothing better.

Calling Friday’s performers at the Palace, Umphrey’s McGee and Aqueous, prog-jam bands, over-simplifies what they do to a degree.  Both play a heavy brand of rock and roll with multi-sectioned arrangements, funky grooves, and lots of improvisation. While diverse bills can be great, it was fun to compare the approaches and sets of the like-minded bands on Friday night.

While the Buffalo-born Aqueous has been around for over 10 years, they’ve only recently emerged nationally in the jam world. As is the case with many opening acts, the audience wasn’t overly familiar with their work. Their sound, however, was very familiar, recalling some of the great rock and jam bands of years past. There was a little Phish, a little Umphrey’s, even a little Zeppelin, all anchored by a groovy funk foundation. Unfamiliarity didn’t prove to be an issue, with the audience enjoying it more than enough to get down.

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Both of their guitarists were great, but what really shined through was their chemistry. It was clear that the band has played together as long as they have, with great full-band interplay, and tight improvisation that never grew tiresome. Though they’ve been around for a long time, they feel like fresh blood in the veteran-dominated jam scene.

One of those veteran bands is Umphrey’s McGee. In their 20th year, the Chicago-based sextet mix progressive rock, funk, reggae and more to create hard-rocking, yet dance-friendly shows. At the Palace, these influences were on display in subtle ways for two strong sets.

Heavy hard rocker “Cut the Cable” was an excellent choice to start set one. Though the Similar Skin cut didn’t lead to any sort of extended jam, it featured great soloing by guitarist Jake Cinninger, building momentum that would last the whole set.

The set would only get better from there. The reggae-tinged “Higgins” found the band working their way through multiple explosive jams, the last of which culminated in a red-hot peak. This was all augmented by their stellar light show, which is as impressive as any in the music world.

After stellar group improvisation on “Looks” and “Push and Pull,” the group dove in to “The Crooked One.” Another groove-heavy and climactic jam, this one more electronic in nature, segued directly into “Upward,” which was arguably the highlight of the first set.

The first set closed with a cover, an excellent take on The Police’s “Driven to Tears.” It was explosive and powerful, and the danceable rhythms ensured that the set would end on a high note.

The second set featured more of the same, with some slight modifications. Opener “Wappy Sprayberry” relied more on grooves than the explosiveness of some of the previous jams, though it culminated in another high-energy peak. “Maybe Someday” featured some of the heavier moments of the night before the band went into the more mellow combination of “Day Nurse” and “Night Nurse.” Both of these jams were anchored by bass and synth grooves and gave the band ample opportunity to showcase other facets of their sound.

After that jam, the band refocused a little bit with a funky “Ringo,” into “Soul Food II,” back into “Ringo” combination. The funky, dance-heavy spirit was kept alive by another set-closing cover, an interesting interpretation of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”

For the encore, the band changed pace a bit, opting for a super rarity in “The Weight Around,” and a fan favorite, uplifting rock number “Glory.” Both played well to the crowd.

The two-set performance showed many sides of the band. Clearly, these guys are technical wizards who can play just about anything.  Importantly, though, they seem like they have a lot of fun doing it. It was evident that the audience sure did.

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