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Tuesday, October 2

Review and Photos: Umphrey's McGee - Minglewood Hall - Memphis, TN - 9/20/2012

I think I should preface this by saying that I consider myself something of a music snob. I've been listening, critiquing, and reviewing shows so long it’s starting to get embarrassing, truthfully telling people how long I've been a music geek.  With that out of the way, I still feel like Umphrey’s Mcgee is one of the best/worst  kept secrets in music. Now, I know about the marathon Bonnaroo sets and the virtuoso Halloween mash-up shows. In fact, it’s safe to say that these guys have blown the doors off of most major festivals in this country. The fact that the guys are still playing mid-size halls like Minglewood Hall in Memphis is both the blessing and bane of this band. They are so talented, so amazingly talented, that they should be headlining massive stadiums if you were to base ticket sales on talent alone. However, they don’t. And us, the humble fan, reap the benefits.  The last four or five times I've seen them play, the largest was the Warfield in San Francisco, not small by any stretch, but certainly not a massive house. I feel blessed being able to see the guys, actually see them, and feel the vibe between them, that it kind of makes me want for them to keep playing the same size halls. Still, these guys should be selling out much larger venues than they do.  I can’t help but think that we are at some sort of tipping point in the band’s history and we should enjoy the intimacy of the smaller houses. They truly are a band that connects with the audience. Following the last show in Memphis, the StewArts series, where they actually jammed off of audiences’ text messaged themes, the guys came roaring out of the gate once again.
By: Ellis Jones
Following openers, Conspirator, which sounded good and I don’t generally like to label a band just good but that is a truthful statement. They weren't spectacular and they weren't terrible. Umphrey’s threw down the jams with what should be trademarked ruthlessness. In Conspirator, I heard some well-played tunes and didn't hear any catastrophic failures. It wasn't a band that struck me as anything other than a side project, which I later found out that it was. I didn't hate the instrumental grooves but I still found myself standing outside smoking for most of their set. Not a glowing recommendation, I admit, but they did a great job opening for the main show.
By: Ellis Jones
As with most every Umphrey’s show that I've been to they came out and plugged in and picked up where they left off the last time they played. The old saw about the Grateful Dead “being the world’s longest running musical conversation” is what ran through my head when Umphrey’s takes the stage. Starting with “Partying Peeps” and never letting up, UM plays with a confidence and poise that only comes from years on the road together. From “#5>Much Obliged>Tribute to the Spinal Shaft” these guys never let up. With each guitarist carving out an aural space, they then proceeded to demolish said space. Brendan and Jake seem to be playing out of one mind, as each one’s distinctive style manage to complement and build on what the other is playing, When the band is really on, Brendan plays notes that supplement what Jake is about to play and vice versa. I don’t mean that the band was off, far from it.  They play with an intuitive and instinctive ability to listen and set the other up for another leap for that golden note or run, that caps a good jam.  As always, Jake has to throw in the metal riffs that initially always set Umphrey’s apart from the rest of the jam circuit.  Now, after having seen the band grow and develop, I appreciate the dose of metal shredding or “rawk” that used to turn me off of them.  I mentioned earlier that it amazes me that Umphrey’s still plays numerous small halls when their sound translates so well to the main stage at any festival slot they choose. The dynamics of their playing and the sound that they create is what makes it possible for this to happen. One of the main factors in this ability to play any venue with the jaw-dropping acumen these guys bring to the table is Joel Cummings. 
By: Ellis Jones
No matter how deep the jams get, he is the glue that holds the band together. The way he melds his own mastery of the notes into a cohesive force to connect the guitarists’ and the rhythm section is one of my favorite parts of Umphrey’s sound and I always find my attention being drawn back to him. The rest of the set seemed to make me forget that the longer they played, the closer the show was to being over. Now that may sound like nonsense but that weird musical head space that the most talented musicians seem to bring me into, create the feeling that time isn't relevant for a while. Umphrey’s is one of those few bands with that ability. It never seems that they are watching the clock. With today’s flashy, choreographed spectaculars that pass for mainstream pop/rock music, it’s very refreshing. As the set wound to a close I realized that I hadn't stopped moving and should probably sit down for a minute, so once again, perfect timing.
By: Ellis Jones
The second set started with a version of “The Floor” that almost seemed to make a statement for anyone new to the band why they should catch this band any time they get the chance.  With a quiet start that showcased the delicacy they could summon that broke into heavy passages that easily dropped back into a rhythmic groove that kept the audience moving made me think that this is a tune that has something for everyone.  Now that the band was back and the short intermission seemed a year ago, which I referred to in my previous comments about time being stretched and dilated by this band, they dropped into the good time party song, “Bright Lights,Big City” This tune is not one of my favorites but it was well played and a fitting set up for where the rest of the show was going. Kicking off with a “Nemo” which sounded like what Dave Matthews dreamed about sounding like one time back  in 1998, the band started a musical progression that alternated between light and heavy and thick and ethereal. With Brendan’s confident vocals and the bands’ easy swing pushing forward, the guy’s dropped into a heavy “Robot’s World” which now gives me a chance to talk about the rhythm section.  Kris and Andy, showed up and showed out on this tune, trading solos like madmen as Jake and Brendan drenched the hall in power chords that are still reverberating to this day.  I know I keep harping on the relative size of the hall, but to see Ryan smiling and interacting with the drummers as the band swung back into “Nemo” makes this music even more of a treat to hear live. The guy’s kept the jams coming well into the night, around four hours I think.  I had stopped watching the clock a long time ago. I know that the band barely stopped playing. From a “Hangover>2x2>Hangover> 2x2, combination to the soulful, reggae-timed “FF”  the band kept their foot firmly on the gas. Which gave the crowd a little dilemma. How was the slower tempo and mellow vocals still so intense? Needless to say, it was one of my highlights of the show. Probably because it gave my old feet a chance to stop and meditate on Jeff Waful’s tasty light show.  The boys didn't let up and neither did Jeff.  Always tasteful and  beautifully timed and with exquisite color choices, Jeff constantly kicked up the visual impact and rammed home the across-the-board talent this band brings to it’s shows.  The sense of humor that Umphrey’s plays with showed as the crowd chanted, “We want the funk” but the band kicked off a two song encore with the Guns and Roses, I won’t say classic, but well-loved, “It’s So Easy” then followed by “Nopener” an Iron Maiden cover that kind of left me scratching my head. It always confuses me when they bring the metal and I thought it was a weird way to end the show but when the guys just brought the kind of show they did for as long as they did, you can’t start complaining at the second song of the encore.
By: Ellis Jones
Umphrey’s McGee has never let me down in concert. Each time I've seen them it has been a unique experience and this one wasn't any different. The sound,lights,music, and lyricism of this band is top-notch and I felt privileged to see it.  Going back to aforementioned music geekery, it takes a lot to impress me but this is one of the few bands that brings a surprise each visit. They've managed to stay creative and connected and not just with each other but with the crowd as well. I wish all the success and mainstream exposure to this band but like a child, I selfishly want to see them in a small, indoor venue. These tunes are huge but in the end, the interaction between the band and the crowd, and the energy that that releases is the reason that I prefer live music. Umphrey’s McGee has been doing this for years and with shows this good, they will have a home in Memphis whenever they want.
Words: Greg Heffelfinger
Photos: Ellis Jones
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