Umphrey’s McGee: 20 April 2011 – Austin, TX

Umphrey's McGee

April 20 has become widely known as national hippie holiday, so it’s an extra blessing when the concert gods send one of the nation’s premiere jambands to help your town celebrate. Austin jam rock fans were understandably psyched to have Umphrey’s McGee rolling into Stubbs BBQ for a 4/20 party. The show marked the Chicago jamband’s first appearance at the venerable Austin venue, demonstrating that their audience continues to grow with each visit.

Local wunderkind Ruby Jane opened the show with her band, built around the 16-year-old fiddle prodigy. She had wowed the crowd at the Austin City Limits Festival last fall when she sat in with Blues Traveler for a smoking jam that proved one of the weekend’s top highlights, so it seemed like a good fit to match her with UM. The early 6:15 start time limited the size of the crowd, but those who made it out saw one of tomorrow’s stars today. Switching between acoustic guitar and fiddle, Jane led the band through material that alternated between bluesy and country rock flavors. She’s still growing into her singing voice, but her fiddle skills are already world class. Jane and nimble guitarist Trevor LaBonte fired things up with several big jams where they traded hot licks, including a set-closing jam that ended things with a bang.

With temperatures in the 90s, it was already starting to feel like summer and that suited UM just fine. “Austin, thank you so much for coming out, it’s been a while since we’ve been here… it was fucking freezing in Chicago last night”, said one of the sextet after their opening number. The band has always been known for their instrumental prowess and their skills seem to keep growing each year. But while you can always expect to see UM melt faces with twin-guitar prog rock jams, the group also continues to hone their songwriting craft. Early numbers “Turn & Run” and “The Floor” both featured melodic vocal lines to set up the instrumental passages.

Drummer Kris Meyers wore a Muse shirt, underscoring how the two bands share many of the same prog rock influences. It’s not hard to imagine an alternate reality where UM are just as big as Muse, headlining festivals across the planet. But while Muse rocks with a similar power, they don’t kick out the jams like UM. The boys from Chicago are probably content to keep things just as they are though, doing it their way. “Booth Love” was an example, where guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger dazzled with harmony tapping riffs, creating a gorgeous anti-gravity guitar effect.

“Slacker” was another highlight, with lyrics from Bayliss that epitomize the band’s vibe – “I have always tried to do the right thing but in the end my results were just a little split off center from the most”. But it’s that off center vibe that makes UM stand out the way they do. The jam picked up steam until it segued on a dime into ZZ Top’s “Cheap Sunglasses” with Cinninger on vocals. This was where the onset of darkness also allowed the band’s light show to take effect, just in time for the song’s classic psychedelia. Then, in classic UM style, the band segued back into “Slacker” to cap off the journey with a triumphant finish on the jam that started it.

It was here that the band wished happy birthday to their ironically named monitor-man Bob Stone. “He doesn’t even puff”, mused one band member before the group capped off the set with their now classic high-powered prog rock epic, “Miss Tinkle’s Overture”. The tune features some great Thin Lizzy-style twin guitar lines, and it’s hard to think of another band in the 21st century that pulls that off like UM does. The band delivered an extra bonus by also teasing the opening riff of Ozzy Osborne’s “Crazy Train”, another crowd pleaser, which only enhanced the big jam.

The set break was just in time, for the cold beer goes down fast on these warm Texas nights and replenishment was definitely in order. The musical fireworks continued to fly in the second set. The band kicked off a high octane set with “Prowler”, which seemed to borrow some riffs from Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” before moving into a jazzier turf. “All in Time” delivered more scintillating dual guitar licks before giving way to “Jimmy Stewart”, one of the band’s staples. A dynamic eleven minute jam then moved into another fan favorite, “Partyin’ Peeps”. Starting with a reggae groove, the party anthem pays tribute to driving all night to get to a show, hanging in smoky bars, and beer bongs before coming back from it all with a brand new soul. It’s this notion of music as a soul renewal catalyst that makes the jam rock scene the place to be for the adventurous soul. And with relentless touring over the past decade, UM have staked out a spot near the top of the jam rock mountain.

More killer twin harmonies soared for one of the evening’s best jams, bringing a big cheer from the Austin faithful at the close of “Partyin’ Peeps”. A cover of Genesis’ “Abacab”, apparently requested by Mr. Stone, was a left-field surprise but another high energy rocker. This is another one of UM’s secret weapons, the uncanny ability to pull out almost any song at any time. “Push the Pig” closed the set in style with a great psychedelic dance jam that had everyone at Stubbs feeling groovy. The only disappointment on this most festive evening was that Ruby Jane never sat in for a jam like she did with Blues Traveler, but maybe next time.

The Austin music scene almost always offers another chance to keep the party going, and so it was here as an enterprising new Phish cover band called A Live One had arranged to play a free after-show party at Stubbs’ indoor stage. Phish helped pave the way for bands like Umphrey’s Mcgee, so this combo made perfect sense. But does the world really still need Phish cover bands now that the jam rock titans are back together? Austinites apparently approve, as a large segment of the audience moved right next door to enjoy themselves. The band threw down a great segue with “Mike’s Song>Wolfman’s Brother>AC/DC Bag”, featuring hot jams on all three “phan” favorites, especially the funky jam on “Wolfman’s Brother”.

It served to underscore the influence of Phish on the modern music scene. There’s not many active bands with cover bands devoted to them. But, as bands like Umphrey’s McGee showed during Phish’s five-year hiatus, the jam rock scene is alive and well and here to stay.