Photo: David Levene

Umphrey’s McGee Treads Where Eagles Dare in Oakland

There's a fine line between just enough and too much, and Umphrey’s McGee aren’t shy about going over the edge just for the hell of it. But the band is at their best when they can rock just up to the edge.

It’s Saturday night in uptown Oakland and the area around the Fox Theater is buzzing. The neighborhood seems to have more and more choices for boozing and dining with each passing season, as the Fox’s resurgence over the past eight years has made this one of the more happening hoods in the East Bay. Umphrey’s Mcgee rolling through town in early spring has become an annual highlight of the Bay Area rock ‘n’ roll calendar in recent years, and so the Umphreaks descend upon Uptown once again.

Some have been following the tour from the Northwest and/or will be following the tour down to Southern California, because the prog-rock wizards of Umphrey’s McGee have a huge repertoire and an improvisational aesthetic that makes every show a different adventure. But few other stops on the tour will match the Fox Theater for overall concert going quality. The Fox has become one of the top venues on the West Coast thanks to scoring high in almost all the categories that matter: great sound, beautiful decor, fan friendly staff, and a happening neighborhood for pre and post show libations (if only the theater itself had a wider beer selection befitting of the California craft beer boom, but such corporate cost saving seems to be an inescapable trend in the venue business these days.)

Arizona jamrock quartet Spafford kicks off the show with a jammy set that seems like a good warmup for Umphrey’s as the band brings a similar guitar-driven sound and psychedelic light show. Whether Spafford has the material to carry the weight at larger theaters like this is debateable, but they’ve been on a steady climb over the past few years just to reach this point. A song about watching the time go by seems to employ a Phishy quality in the jam, with the guitar and keyboards complementing each other in a dynamic manner. The set peaks with a song about leaving a light on where the jam reaches a crest of tension, release, and resolution that conjures a mass cheer from the Umphreaks, a sure sign that Spafford is on the right track.

There seems to be a cinematic intention when the lights go back down for Umphrey’s McGee as the band slowly builds the opening song in a manner that makes it feel like the audience is entering a retro sci-fi action flick like Escape from New York. The band opens up the playbook early in the set with an adventurous take on “Bridgeless”, showing off their unique blend of melodic groove rock with a hard rock edge that gets the audience revved up early. The funky syncopation of “2nd Self” strikes a chord as well, perhaps recalling the influence of vintage Phish on tunes like “Fluffhead”, but with some timely lyrics as guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss sings about a girl who just “wants to be spared from voting for a candidate who doesn’t care”.

The appearance of fan favorite jam vehicle “Wappy Sprayberry” makes it clear the band is not holding back for Sunday night’s highly anticipated performance at the more intimate Terrapin Crossroads, as this first set starts to feel more like a second set. It’s one of the quintessential Umphrey’s McGee tunes, where the hard rock edge doesn’t overwhelm the infectious groove that opens up for some hot melodic exploration from Bayliss and fellow guitarist Jake Cinninger. The group continues to dazzle with their penchant for exploring wide-ranging sonic landscapes and dropping left field covers when they bust out with an impressive rendition of Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne”. The tight syncopation is dazzling, with bassist Ryan Stasik, drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag dialed in on a high level. The dance happy energy in the theater is soon building to where it seems like this could close the set, but the band veers back into “Bridgeless” to put an extra exclamation mark on the set.

It’s been a set where the band has been firing on all cylinders without resorting to over-the-top prog-metal pyrotechnics as an energetic crutch. There have been all too many times in recent years when it seems like Cinninger has taken his prog-rock guitar exercises too seriously, trying to shred as many notes as he can to the detriment of the grooves. But then there are other times when he’ll rip off electrifying riffage that propels the band from point A to point B with stunning impact. There’s a fine line between just enough and too much, and Umphrey’s McGee aren’t shy about going over the edge just for the hell of it. But the band is at their best when they can rock to the edge without going over the cliff and still keep the audience grooving.

The second set therefore holds great promise as Umphrey’s storms out of the gate on “Bird Bath”, with keyboardist Joel Cummins leading the charge with some of his best cosmic synthedelia. Stasik has donned an ‘80s style satin Budweiser jacket that seems to indicate he and the band are letting it all hang out here and the proof is soon in the sonic pudding. “2 x 2” features some sneaky sounding playful funk that segues into a soaring melodic jam where Cinninger’s hot leads propel the music instead of overwhelming it. The end of the song brings a huge roar, confirming the band is doing it just right as Bayliss acknowledges when he rhetorically asks, “Are we having any fun yet?” The infectious groove of “1348” keeps the jammy good times rolling as does the intricate “Hajimemashite” with its dynamic blend of funky syncopation and rock riffage. The hot set continues to pick up steam with “Ringo”, another crowd-pleaser that takes a rocking sonic journey.

Umphrey’s McGee throws caution to the wind in a move few other bands would even consider when they bust out Metallica’s “And Justice For All” to close the set and totally crush it. Covering Metallica on their home turf is one of the ballsiest music moves of recent years, somewhat akin to treading on sacred ground. But as Umphrey’s McGee have proven time and again, they are sonic eagles that have no fear of heights. Perhaps the band has been steadily moving toward this moment with the metallic direction their sound has taken on in recent years. Or maybe the idea was more of an impulsive urge catalyzed by the political tire fire of the Trump presidency. It’s totally epic either way, with Myers delivering the gritty lead vocal and Bayliss melting face on Kirk Hammett’s smoking wah-wah lead before Cinninger takes the baton to finish off the solo.

Bands that have the diversity to cover Steely Dan and Metallica in the same show comprise a very short list, but Umphrey’s McGee have shown once again that their talent and willingness to span the rock spectrum is nearly unparalleled.