It’s a chilly, rainy Thursday evening in Sonoma County on 23 February, par for the course in one of Bay Area history’s coldest, wettest winters. California needs the rain, yet it feels like climate change is stealing some of the state’s famous sunshine. But music fans are braving the elements in downtown Petaluma because improvisational rockers Umphrey’s McGee have brought their 25th-anniversary tour to town for a show at the Mystic Theater. Any band that can keep it together for 25 years is to be commended, and Umphrey’s McGee have primarily done it the old-fashioned way – with relentless touring and adventurous improvisation that gets fans hooked on chasing what’s going to happen next.
The show at the Mystic is billed as more of an intimate experience than usual because Umphrey’s McGee typically plays the much larger Fox Theater in Oakland when visiting the Bay Area. This tends to raise expectations, so fans are amped up for some musical sunshine to warm up the frigid evening. McNear’s Saloon next to the Mystic is always a hot spot on concert nights, but there’s also an enticing new option in town, with the Kapu tiki bar just about two blocks away. The dimly lit tiki ambience has a heady vibe from the moment one enters, with a menu of delectable rum drinks and Hawaiian cuisine that seems like an appropriate way to pregame for a psychedelic rock experience at the Mystic Theater.
The posters that Umphrey’s McGee are selling at the merch table hint at an interstellar trip with a flying saucer traversing the cosmos in a swirl of psychedelic imagery, always a good sign of high times to come. “It Doesn’t Matter” kicks the show off with a mid-tempo groove that feels like an excellent way to settle in, as guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger weave riffs over a warm low end from bassist Ryan Stasik. Bayliss delivers some soulful vocals on “Mad Love”, a tune with crisp riffs and guitar chords that leave space for keyboardist Joel Cummins to add melodic piano lines that elevate the band’s sound.
“It’s Not Your Fault” is an infectious number from 2022’s Asking for a Friend, Umphrey’s McGee’s latest record that delivers a solid batch of tunes focusing more on songcraft than jams. It gets cut short for “Conduit” from 2011’s Death by Stereo, clearly, a popular choice from the audience reaction as the song blends hot riffage with some laid-back dub chords. “Front Porch” elevates the jam factor as the sextet starts exploring more of the sonic highways and byways, with drummer Kris Meyers and percussionist Andy Farag locking in on a tight beat. The guitars take a layered approach to get the Mystic into a nice collective groove before the jam segues into the energetic “Gulf Stream”. Cinninger sings here about being surrounded by friends and ad-libs, “California, so nice to see you, it’s been too long!” The energy soars as Umphrey’s McGee rock out, then segue into a big finish on “Front Porch”.
The raucous “Hangover” closes out the first set with a rollicking tale of some party animals who go “all night long”, making for a clear fan favorite. It’s been a fun first set, but it feels like Umphrey’s McGee can go into a higher gear. A different gear is what fans get during the set break when the Umphrey’s McGee crew takes the stage as Fingertight and rocks out on a groovy rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “West LA Fadeaway”. Road manager Robbie Williams fronts the band on guitar and vocals, and the audience loves every minute of this special surprise treat.
Umphrey’s McGee come back out for the second set and crank it up a notch with “Bright Lights, Big City”, a high-energy number with an extended crowd-pleasing jam. Bassist Ryan Stasik has undergone a wardrobe change and now appears to be wearing an Evil Knievel racing outfit of some sort, which seems fitting as the group rides this jam for some adventurous exploration. One section takes on a more electronica-flavored groove that pleasantly reminds some listeners of why Umphrey’s McGee and Sound Tribe Sector 9 used to tour together ten to 15 years ago.
The Mystic Theater is getting into the groove as the set soars. “Attachments” is a hot number featuring a triumphant vibe with sharp riffs and some big bass that recall the late 1980s/early 1990s hard rock era of Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, and Tesla. Bayliss sings out about how everyone needs something to believe in and advises listeners not to get so attached because “you’re only here for the moment.” Umphrey’s McGee conjure a big wave of energy and ride it out for a tight jam.
“Atmosfarag” is one of Umphrey McGee’s more unique compositions, blending some 1980s new wave synth elements with some mystical Eastern vibes to create a grooving sonic landscape before the guitars add further firepower. It’s an uplifting number that climbs into a high-level jam of blissful psychedelia, including Cinninger burning up the fretboard with some incendiary tapping licks. Umphrey’s McGee then throw it back to their debut album with the infectiously funky “Andy’s Last Beer” from 2002’s Local Band Does O.K., generating a gloriously groovy wookie dance party.
The sensational “Hajimemashite” from Death by Stereo brings the set to a grand conclusion with a tour de force sonic journey, as Bayliss starts out singing of learning of how good things can really be before the band comes in with a triumphant blast of melodic tone science that showcases Umphrey’s McGee at the pinnacle of their sonic powers. The tight blend of melodic guitar lines and Cummins’ strategically harmonic piano parts generate an uplifting effect that feels downright mystical. The song starts dreamy before elevating into a raging jam, with Cinninger melting up the fretboard as if he’s the Silver Surfer chasing after that flying saucer in the poster.
A rocking encore on “Puppet String” provides one last big blast of rock power to wrap up a very festive evening. It’s been a fun night in Petaluma, with Umphrey’s McGee fans feeling elated about getting into the Mystic. The 25th-anniversary tour surely holds many more sonic tricks and treats, including another 20 April hippie holiday show at the fabulous Stubbs BBQ in Austin, Texas, and two nights at the renowned Red Rocks Amphitheater just outside of Denver, Colorado, 16-17 June.