Influenced: An Artist’s Review: Umphrey’s ROCKchester

For this Umphrey’s review we invited Aqueous‘s Mike Gantzer to sit in as guest reporter and cover one of his and Aqueous’s big influences.  

In the Fall of 2007, I’d been strongly advised by my fellow band mate Evan McPhaden, (who’d been strongly advised by some guy he worked with) to check out a band I’d never heard of. They were playing on a Monday night at the Harro East Ballroom in Rochester, NY. I decided to go based on the pretense that this band “melts faces” and mostly that it was an excuse to see live music on a Monday night instead of doing schoolwork. Six years and 20 some odd shows later, its pretty safe to say that my face really hasn’t been the same, and it’s all Umphrey’s McGee’s fault.

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Something resonated with Aqueous when we first started seeing Umphrey’s. They did what we wanted to do: they grooved, they shredded, they listened to each other. The interplay between every member of that band is out of control, and that set an intense pace for us when we were defining our sound. Specifically for me, the aggressive but dynamic guitar approach was perfect, and I loved how Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss worked as a unit. They sort of re-affirmed my belief that the best way for a band to function is to have every member completely cognizant of the others in the group, and to build every song or jam as one whole; a foundation that we have built our entire band around. Beyond the music, their general structure was fresh and innovative, and it always seems like they’re pushing the jam scene into new territories. (UM bowl, The Headphones and Snocones program, their music education program sUMmer school, etc…)Umphreys (47)

It was only fitting that I found myself at the Harro East Ballroom seeing Umphrey’s McGee destroying the place in the very same fashion they had when I began my journey with them all those years ago (albeit with a significant upgrade to Jefferson Waful’s light rig, and probably double the amount of people in attendance). Although the Harro East isn’t the best room acoustically speaking, the band was still totally dialed in, and every nuance could be heard from the right spot in the venue.

Umphrey’s McGee has mastered the art of the setlist, which in a way is like mastering the art of musical contrast. Given that their catalog is extensive and their musical prowess spans and draws from several genres, Umphrey’s has managed to consistently write setlists that showcase so many sides of the band, and they move seamlessly between those sides with mind-blowing segues and some of the tightest on-the-dime transitions you can imagine. This night was no exception, they seemed to have struck a perfect balance between three notable and specifically Umphrey’s-esque themes: prog, groove, and dance.

Opening the show with a super aggressive “Padgett’s Profile” right into a burning “2×2”, it was clear that they weren’t taking any prisoners this Sunday night. After the incredible composed section that sounds something like Mozart with the distortion on 11, they opened the song up into a beautiful and patient but ever-building jam. This show in particular saw a lot more psychedelic moments than I’d seen Umphrey’s get into before, which culminated in several chill-inducing moments when songs finally peaked, and that tone was set early on with this particular rendition of “2×2”.

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The set continued on with a standard but excellent version of “Anchor Drops”. Short and sweet, this showcased super solid three part vocal harmonies, and some great and tasteful playing/phrasing by Cinninger. Moving into Safety In Numbers territory, a “Nemo>Sweetness>Nemo sandwich saw one of the most uplifting and triumphant peaks of the first set, and the final lyrics of “Nemo” always resonate deeply with me: “As many times as we’ve been there and back again, Now I don’t care if I’ll be no one in the end.”

I was psyched to see the band touching on older material from the Local Band Does OK era, as they started up the super prog-y and air-guitar worthy “Water”. This particular composition is adventurous and intense; seguing through many driving peaks and valleys, and the band nailed this version, an impressive task with so many changes. The set came to a screaming close with the deep, slouchy groove “Smell the Mitten”. The guitar harmonies on this song are super playful and fun, and the groove built into a driving/dance-y jam that centered around Joel Cummins’ keyboard leads. There was some specific interplay between drummer Kris Myers and bassist Ryan Stasik that was really pushing the jam, and the song and set came to an epic end with a huge sounding riff. After proclaiming, “Thank you, we’re Joel Cummins and the Twitter Junkies”, the band exited the stage as Supertramp came on over the PA system.

Excitement mounted as the band took the stage for the second set with the fan-favorite “Jajunk”, and nearly everyone in the place was air-guitaring along, myself included. As the band came away from the composed intro, this section saw a distinctive interplay between Bayliss and Cinninger in the form of a guitar line that served as the theme of that jam. Again, Umphrey’s pulled back the reigns and opted for some brief psychedelia before jumping into the Steely Dan-esque “Comma Later”. Another Joel-led jam found the band entranced in a deep dance groove. Percussionist Andy Farag’s role in coloring the music with tasteful and necessary additions really stood out here. As the jam came to a close, they built it into the instrumental “Space Funk Booty”, a dirty groove based on diminished chords and solid rock riffing, which came to a decently concise close. Bayliss commented on the crowd’s enthusiasm for a Sunday night, before kicking into a newer tune “Glide”. Stasik’s slap work served as the groundwork for a super funky, falsetto vocal-based dance machine of a tune, and the entire crowd responded by dancing even harder than before.

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Moving again into the Local Band Does OK catalog, the band jumped right into “Prowler>”2nd Self”, just as it is on the aforementioned album. “Prowler” featured a super quick tease of Van Halen’s “Unchained” by Cinninger, and both Cummins and Bayliss shined in this section, with beautiful, peaking solos. It’s worth mentioning again how they nailed these songs to a tee; especially given how many intense changes the songs have built into their respective structures.  As Umphrey’s started to draw the set to a close, they pulled out a “Dump City” on the crowd, and this might have been the highlight of the show. It jumped between a sly groove and some super heavy guitar riffs, and two things specifically stood out here. Initially, Jake took some super clean leads that were pretty shocking, very Jeff Beck-esque and tasteful. Secondly, the jam culminated in the ongoing theme of space and psychedelic jamming in the form of a super strange build out of a Myers/Farag solo that launched straight into the atmosphere. It was an odd mix of metal and space, and you could even see the band being surprised by what was happening. Out of nowhere, they pulled it back into “Dump City”, and it came to a raucous close. Bayliss noted that it got “Weird, almost like the Twilight Zone”, and the band appropriately closed the set with the 1982 classic rock hit “Twilight Zone” by Golden Earring, sung by Cinninger.

Returning to the stage for the encore, they dropped into the shuffle beat/reggae influenced “Thin Air”, an interesting and fun choice, and promptly moved into a shifting section between a Latin samba feel with Bayliss leads, and a jazz feel with Cinninger leads. This built into a soaring duel guitar jam that ended with the classical “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, only to return to “JaJunk Part Two”. Cinninger proceeded to destroy everyone in the building with fiery leads, and the show came to an epic and final ending as the band thanked the crowd and walked off.

This show achieved what every Umphrey’s McGee show achieves for me; I left feeling incredibly inspired. There’s a strong correlation between any member of Aqueous seeing an Umphrey’s show and new material forming quickly from us thereafter, and that has been a consistent pattern since we all first saw them, fittingly in this same venue. Face: successfully melted.

Set 1: Padgett’s Profile, 2×2, Anchor Drops, Nemo -> Sweetness[1] > Nemo, Water, Smell the Mitten
Set 2: JaJunk, Comma Later > Space Funk Booty, Glide, Prowler > 2nd Self, Dump City, Twilight Zone
Encore: Thin Air > JaJunk