It’s easy to label Chicago-based sextet Umphrey’s McGee as just a progressive-rock jam band, but after years of touring and recording, the group’s improvisation has generated an eclectic catalog of musical styles. And they’ve developed a knack for playing to the audience. In some cities and venues, Umphrey’s will stick more closely to one genre. At Upstate Concert Hall on Thursday, however, the crowd was treated to an expansive mix of styles including folk, funk, metal, reggae, jazz, blues and classical.
The band jumped right in with “Cat Shot,” which immediately turned into a funky jam with Caribbean flare and emphasis on the down beat. A mini transitional groove led into “Phil’s Farm” from One Fat Sucka. This fast-paced, metal-filled, prog-rock tune intertwined with “Jazz Odyssey,” one of the band’s signature improvisational jams.
Guitarist Brendan Bayliss said, “It’s cold everywhere, so let’s get this place moving.” “Miami Virtue” warmed up the crowd with a funky reggae-inspired tune from the album Death by Stereo. This flowed into “Professor Wormbog,” an instrumental piece also from the album One Fat Sucka, which features jazzy piano over duo guitars playing rock-ballad chords. Intricate percussion and minor-chord progressions were intertwined with blues-rock riffs for “Morning Song.” Before set break, Umphrey’s played select tracks from Mantis, including “Preamble” and “Mantis” mixed again with “Jazz Odyssey.”
Excitement and anticipation mounted as the audience mushed in shoulder-to-shoulder for the band’s second set. Whereas the first half featured more dissonance and minor chords, the second half was more dance-oriented. Dual guitars were greeted by tinkling piano keys when Umphrey’s returned with the bold, uplifting “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” from Anchor Drops. The crowd moved in a semi-plutonic amoebic mass as they tried to dance around each other.
Heavy-handed chords kicked off “Push the Pig” from Live at the Murat, but they soon subsided into easy grooves with a staccato beat and sweeping crescendos. The band turned to pop and jazz for the crowd-inspiring cover of Toto’s “Rosanna” that had everyone singing. After the mind-blowing metal of “Go to Hell,” Umphrey’s closed with the funky jam “Der Bluten Kat” mixed with “The Fuzz” and a sample of Mozart’s “Piano Sonata #16 in C Major.”
When the band left the stage, the crowd relentlessly cheered, “We want the Umph! Gotta have that Umph!” Their chanting earned two encore songs. First was “The Weight Around,” which was a slow, bluesy groove off of The Bottom Half. Umphrey’s ended with high energy by playing a cover of “Mother,” originally performed by 1980s rocker Danzig. Sample teases from guitarist Jake Cinninger included “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” by the Rolling Stones and “Jimmy Stewart.”
Precision, unity and seamless transitions between tempo, mood and style make Umphrey’s McGee more than just a progressive rock and jam group. Their professional lighting and soundboard crews also create an atmosphere that sounds and looks like a large concert hall even in a compact venue. A full live recording of the set at Upstate Concert Hall is available for download at UMLive.net.