[26 March 2014]
Many bands like to take some time off after a big New Year’s Eve run, such as the four nights that Umphrey’s McGee played in Denver to close out 2013. But these prog-rock road warriors seem to be on an endless tour, living to rock and rocking to live. Many of their fans will follow the band for a week or more, or at least catch multiple shows since the Chicago-based group has a huge repertoire that changes nightly. This also enables them to tour more heavily than standard rock acts who play the same set night after night.
It’s music for those drawn to sonic wizardry, too adventurous for the muggles who prefer songs not to crack the five minute barrier. UM is also known for their penchant to bust out surprise covers at anytime, such as a recent encore of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock” in Chicago with former Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. The West Coast benefitted from the late winter/early spring tour with UM hitting classic venues like the Fox Theater in Oakland and the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles.
But San Diego sadly has no similarly appropriate theater venue with great sound and sight lines such as fans are blessed with in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Touring bands that can move some tickets are therefore forced to choose amongst flawed options. The House of Blues chain has many quality venues across the country, but the San Diego establishment is unfortunately not one of them. The venue has come to be known locally as the “House of Rules”, due to lack of a smoking section and restrictions on taking drinks to the floor at 18-plus shows like this one.
The venue was absolutely jammed on this Friday night, with a lengthy line just to gain entry as showtime neared. The floor was so packed that it was impossible to get out from under the low ceiling that hinders the sound. The bar area was even worse, so overcrowded that security would let only one person enter after three had exited. Traversing this exasperating obstacle course was necessary just to get to the other side of the room to search for a sliver of elbow room. The balcony is the only place in addition to the soundboard area with both good sound and clear view, yet only balcony ticket holders could gain admittance. Balcony tickets are cheaper than general admission floor tickets at most venues in America, but the reverse is true here, a telling sign.
The early part of the show was therefore deemed to be a challenging experience by many in attendance. But serious rock ‘n’ rollers will always find a way to prevail. UM has many of the same classic rock influences as their peers in the jam-rock community such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers Band. But UM has carved out their own niche in “progressive improvisation” with virtuoso influences like Yes, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Iron Maiden guiding their direction as well.
The men of UM did their best to triumph over the adverse conditions with a series of high-energy jams to get some good vibes going. Guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss are one of the hottest axe-slinging duos in the land, able to melt faces without warning with their harmony guitar lines and smoking solos. Bassist Ryan Stasik, drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag are a lean, mean rhythm machine, while keyboardist Joel Cummins is the band’s secret weapon. There are some songs where it seems he’s hardly even playing, but others where he’s able to influence the jams in an array of sonic directions with his multi-dimensional skills.
Cummins’ diverse talents mirror the band’s ability to dabble in many styles. “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” was pure guitar-driven prog-rock. But then the band came back with “Booth Love”, a mid-tempo tune with a floating groove that gave fans a chance to collect themselves while still getting a groove on. There was a similar contrast between the hard rock of “Puppet String” and the funkier stylings employed on “No Comment”, which had a jazzy melodic flavor reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s “Eyes of the World”. The band’s groovier side continued to shine on “Andy’s Last Beer” with funky verses mixed with hard rocking sections. “Bright Lights, Big City” brought the first set to a rousing close with a roller-coaster jam that veered into some deep psychedelia before a big rock finish.
There’s no fresh air to be had in the entire venue but sweaty fans attempted to cool down a bit in the lounge during the set-break, catching up with friends while gearing up for the second go-around. The band wasted no time launching back into the fiery prog-rock mayhem with “Mulche’s Odyssey”, which took listeners on an extended journey through sonic time and space. One of the evening’s peak moments occurred with the incomparable “Triple Wide”. The perennial fan-favorite started with a tease on Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon”, before launching into one of the band’s most dynamic grooves. Cummins starred here with psychedelic synths that meshed with muted guitar riffs on one of the band’s most unique songs.
The encore featured a retro “dance song” bust-out in the form of “I Ran” from the Flock of Seagulls, but rocked harder than the ‘80s new wave band ever dreamed of. The playful ability to transform such tunes into their own genre is part of what makes Umphrey’s McGee a band for adventurous listeners, even when the setting is far from ideal.